Malice is NOT the Issue

By on February 28, 2010

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Yesterday was an important moment in the development of this Arsenal side. Before the game, but after the Chelsea result, I was chatting with J. Sanderson of Young Guns, and we both believed that, after Chelsea’s loss, this was the most important league fixture we’d played in a few years. Only a few minutes later, Arsenal were down 1-nil to a Delap throw-in. It looked like deja vu all over again. But a magnificent header by Bendtner got us back into it and from the 30th minute on, Arsenal turned in a paradigm-shifting performance.

On BBC Match of the Day, Alan Shearer said that Arsenal had “answered a few questions.” Even Alan Hansen was so impressed that he actually uttered the phrase, “I’m becoming an Arsenal fan.” It was THAT kind of performance. The stage was set for a disaster. We’d lost our lost four league trips to Stoke-on-Trent and hadn’t had a lead there in 28 years. The Chelsea loss only increased the pressure sevenfold.

But even after conceding to an early Delap throw-in, Arsenal refused to lay down and die. Yesterday, we saw a glimpse of the future of this side. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Arsenal… A team that can be as physical as they need to be without sacrificing their footballing style. We got stuck in, we challenged hard for every ball, shut Stoke down in the midfield, and were quick to turn dispossessions into attacks. And, after having a blatant penalty shout on Ramsey denied, finally broke the deadlock in the 91st minute. Another, even more blatant shout was denied on Bendtner, before Cesc and Vermaelen sealed the deal.

Stoke had two points to their gameplan yesterday: 1) Get as physical as the referee will seem to allow  2) Try to get as many throw-ins as possible. And that was it.The fact is that Arsenal matched Stoke’s physicality throughout the entire match and didn’t crumble after the tackle. They also limited Stoke’s throw-ins for the final sixty minutes. That took away Tony Pulis’ entire tactical plan. A cynical off-the-ball challenge on Fabregas after the second goal and on Bendtner in the box showed that Stoke had run out of ideas.

Anti-Arsenal Tactics

I don’t necessarily believe it’s a case of managers telling their players to go out and hurt Arsenal. But the league itself creates the problem. With so much money at stake for bottom-half clubs fighting relegation, negative tactics have become the norm in the Premier League. The gulf between 3rd place and 15th place in the Premier League may as well be a league apart.

Teams of that caliber simply cannot match top 5 teams on footballing terms and, because they are fighting for the very life of their club, they easily fall back on playing negative football. Add in to that Arsenal’s style and the false characterization of Arsenal not liking it “up ’em” and you have the current situation.

As for the “punditry,” the denial goes on. Before the last meeting at the Brittania Stadium, Ricardo Fuller, a striker no less, came out in the papers talking about how Stoke planned to rough Arsenal up. Yet pundits continue to deny that teams take a decidedly more physical approach with Arsenal than other sides. I imagine that nothing can really be done about teams attempting to disrupt Arsenal with an overly physical style from the league’s perspective. But, just once, I would like to hear the league and the pundits admit that that is what is going on here.

The Tackle

Whether Shawcross felt bad after the fact has no bearing on the situation. The fact is he came in recklessly high. What did he think was going to be the result of a challenge like that? After the Eduardo incident, no one can feign surprise at the outcome of a tackle of that sort. And to hear a delusional Stoke supporter on 606 right after the match claiming that Shawcross didn’t deserve the red card because “there was no malice in the tackle” and thought the challenge warranted “a booking, perhaps” was just ridiculous.

“Malice” is not the issue. It doesn’t matter whether Shawcross’s challenge was malicious or not. It was reckless. THAT is what needs to be rooted out of the game, not malice. Players need to know that if they aren’t thinking about the challenge they are going to make that they can pay a heavy price.

Some have called for Shawcross to be banned for as long as Ramsey is out. I did the same after the Eduardo tackle. If players knew they would suffer the same repercussions as the victim of their reckless tackle, they would think twice about the kind of challenges they make. Plain and simple. I’m sorry but a 3-match ban for a tackle that puts a player out for a year is just not right. The longer the league continues to ignore it, the more they are to blame when incidents like this happen.

With that said, I don’t feel quite the same ill will towards Shawcross as I did towards Taylor two years ago. First of all, Shawcross wasn’t smiling after the challenge. Second, it was a 50/50 ball, unlike Taylor’s despicable “tackle” on Eduardo.

At the same time, anyone who claims the player has “no history” of foul play obviously doesn’t remember him breaking Francis Jeffers’ ankle or taking Adebayor out for almost a month last season in a match which saw Adebayor, Gallas, and Walcott all injured for multiple weeks from Stoke tackles. That’s a lot of incidents for such a young player, especially one that alledgedly has “no history.”

The other important question is: why does this happen to Arsenal? Richard Keys’ assertions that it is because of Arsenal’s quick style is tantamount to saying that it is OUR OWN FAULT. That is disgraceful. As was the Stoke supporters singing, “He’s only got one leg.”

The Response

After bossing the first 18 minutes of the second half, and really looking like getting the go-ahead goal, the tackle sucked the wind out of what was otherwise a very entertaining and hard-fought match. We looked like suffering the same fate as Birmingham two years ago. Clichy realized the danger there and tried rallying Vermaelen, who looked devastated by Ramsey’s injury. The entire side looked absolutely distraught. No one could have truly faulted them had they failed to get the 3 points.

But this side dug in and delivered when we needed it most and when circumstances had made it the hardest it could be. We saw a togetherness and a spirit in the side that had been questioned after each of the defeats to Chelsea and United. The celebrations and huddle at center-pitch following the match reminded me of the spirit the team we had in 2007-08 before the Eduardo injury when we led the league by 5 points.

Just as intoxicating was the unbridled enthusiasm of Sol Campbell. Here is a man who has been given an unexpected second chance to play at the very top level and he KNOWS it. And his spirit and enthusiasm is infectious. We saw it running through the entire team yesterday.

After the match, Cesc’s anger was evident, as you can see in the interview below. And who can blame him? How many times do we have to see something like this happen to our players before, at the very least, the game’s caretakers admit that it is an issue?

Now, following Chelsea’s two demoralizing defeats in the past 5 days occasioned by their defensive woes and United’s continued over-reliance on Rooney and own goals for their scoring, the door to the title, cracked at noon, was swung wide open by 7:30pm.

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