Sunday, February 28, 2010

Deja vu, Fate, Kicking culture

Feb 23, 2008: Birmingham 2-2 Arsenal -- Eduardo leg broken, a last minute penalty 
Feb 27, 2010: Stoke 1-3 Arsenal -- Ramsey leg broken, a last minute penalty

History repeated itself in cruel fashion on Saturday Feb 27 when yet another Arsenal player's leg was broken recklessly in an away fixture. And just like the previous two occasions (Eduardo in 2008, Diaby vs Sunderland in 2006), the opposing player is labeled as a nice guy by the British media who have quickly tried to forget this incident as soon as possible. Yet, one has to ask why do Arsenal players keep getting injured in such fashion over and over? And this is not even including the rash years of fouling that Bolton (under Big Sam), Blackburn and even Man Utd (October 2004) dished out to Arsenal.

Part of the answers lie in an insightful book by Gianluca Vialli called The Italian Job which examines the differences in Italian and English footballing cultures and the different management styles that exist (the book includes some worthy interviews with Wenger). Vialli mentions how in England fans applaud a player attempting to run after a lost ball (meaning lost cause) and consider that attribute as part of a player's commitment because the fans believe the player is giving it his all and he cares for the game. Whereas, in Italy fans might consider that player as wasting his energy. Those words reflect how some players in England play with a false sense of commitment. One can imagine imagine the following words in the Birmingham dressing room before the Eduardo leg breaking game or in yesterday's Stoke game. Alex McLeish (or Tony Pulis) probably told his players to "give it their all", to "get stuck in", etc. Now, each player will interpret those instructions as per their ability. Martin Taylor and Ryan Shawcross are not in the same mould as Paolo Maldini, a player who could win the ball by not making sinister tackles. Maldini did not need to lunge because his understanding of the game was genius. Whereas from the tackle that Taylor made just two minutes into the Birmingham game, one can easily infer that he falls under an inept mould of a player. The smirk on his face after the tackle indicated that he had no consequences for his actions. His first thoughts were “that will teach ya” or “you are not getting past me” or he even thought that he had just shown the commitment his manager talked about, that sense of “getting stuck-in”, not backing away from a tackle. Shawcross on the other hand was distraught after he saw how serious the injury to Ramsey was, but the damage had already being done. And the fact that this is not the first time that Shawcross made such a dangerous tackle (Adebayor was put out by Shawcross) refutes the claim that Ryan is an innocent player.

Easier to destruct than to create

Unfortunately, the league is full of players like Taylor and Shawcross. Players who sense of tackling is off, players who are not technically competent. So who gets punished? The player or the system that believes it is manly to take an opponent down, a system that encourages players that there is no shame in being physical to stop an opponent?

Question: How do you stop a skillful player?

In 1966, Portugal and Hungry answered this question by kicking the hell out of Pele. The players did not hide their vicious fouls and openly went after the Brazilian superstar.

Well, for the last few years plenty of teams have also answered this question by going after Arsenal in a physical manner (Manchester Utd in 2004, Bolton, Blackburn come to mind). What’s worse is that nothing is seen wrong in that. The excessive fouls are just put down to "physical part of the game". Yup, the physical part of the game that has always existed, exists and will always exist. Players have to be men enough to take the kicks, get up and carry on. And if a player complains about getting kicked too much? Well he is not a man! He is considered weak. A perception that existed in the English game long before the 1990’s was that foreign players were considered too weak to withstand the physical part of the game. Vialli makes a reference to this as well in his book. Ofcourse, the reverse is also true when quite a few English players could not make it in the Italian league because they did not possess the technical skills required to avoid defenders who would breathe on an attacker’s neck constantly. Thankfully those narrow views changed slightly in the last decade when an influx of talented foreigners came into the English league and the overall style of play changed to accommodate skillful passing. Yet one can still find commentators refer to some players as having a "silky touch" but not being physical enough. And there are plenty of teams who continue to spend time on getting their players ready to kick opponents.

The league will never take any serious actions against a player who makes a reckless tackle and ends an opponent's season or career. That is just not the English way. So the only way to fight this is for Arsenal to win against teams who have leg breaking players in their squad. If Arsenal and other teams win games against negative or anti-football, then that might mean that teams might be forced to improve technically and not resort to kicking to win games.

Fate signals

In 2008, Arsenal were leading 2-1 but a last minute mistake from Clichy gave Birmingham a penalty from which they tied the game up. Gallas, the then Arsenal captain, was in tears and sat in the center circle by himself. The players, who were rattled from the Eduardo injury, never recovered after the game and threw the title away. History books will show that Man Utd won the 2008 title but the truth is Man Utd didn't win the title but Arsenal instead lost the title.

Yesterday, with the game tied 1-1, Eduardo came on as a late sub. Fate gave him a chance to win the game but he put the ball wide. Then fate decided that a penalty must reverse Arsenal's fortunes from 2 years and so after Arsenal got a last minute penalty, their captain, Cesc Fabregas, stepped up and just managed to convert his penalty. Cue celebrations. And to emphasize their new found belief, Arsenal added a third goal via a Thomas Vermaelen tap-in. Vermaelen and Cesc were in shock after the Ramsey injury but both of them managed to score crucial goals. After the final whistle, the players huddled in a circle and showed their team spirit, something missing 2 years ago.

So does that mean that Arsenal will turn the tide and win the title this year? Fate has certainly given them a chance. A promising third act lies in store.