Managers out of control

Is Arsene Wenger off his rocket again? The Frenchman has recently made the headlines again for his claim that “English players are the best at diving”. We can be absolutely certain that he is not referring to Tom Daley. Hot off the game of Liverpool and Tottenham, where Harry Kane, using his clout as one of England’s top players, went over in injury time, expecting that referees were not going to flag him up for diving and won his team a penalty which was later saved, Wenger offered his comments about how the art of diving is being refined by English players.

First of all, that is an unequivocally silly statement to make. Wenger himself has English players within his Arsenal team, so it would be an awkwardly embarassing insinuation that the ones in his team are learning how to go over, how to initiate contact and how to fall properly. Has the Premier League become so competitive that teams are sending players to ju-jitsu lessons to learn how to land on the floor without injuring themselves, then looking for contact in the game?

This is not the first time Arsene has opened his mouth and said something he shouldn’t have. Referring to his team’s defeat by Manchester City in November, he accused Raheem Sterling of diving then. Wenger seems “locked in” in his ideas that the manager should take the heat off his team, and seems to be saying something controversial to avoid any discussion of his team’s form in the league, or to take away the media attention on his defence – or lack of defence, not that the courting of Jonny Evans has failed. But the problem is that each time Wenger thinks he is deflecting attention away from his players, he really – by attracting media attention – is drawing attention to it. Yesterday, the media would have been happy focussing on Antonio Conte’s poor form at Chelsea, and how Chelsea managers don’t last very long in the owner versus manager battle. That story still had long to run. The only thing is now Mr Wenger has accused English players of diving, after the Tottenham game, ahead of the North London derby where Harry Kane will be in attendance.

Is it a clever move to say things that will ignite your opponents? Wenger probably hopes that his comments may influence the game such that if a Tottenham player like Kane goes down again, the referee will be less inclined to blow his whistle. But he is out of touch to think that. If anything, the subtle attempt to influence the officiating is such a distasteful act that any referee would probably blow the whistle just to annoy Wenger.

And if one of his English players go do down under a Tottenham challenge, don’t expect Wenger to eat his words.

The point is – if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it!

Arsenal players probably play best when the focus of expectation is not on them. But Wenger’s recent talk is probably going to just put them under the media glare again. So despite the new improved attack, don’t expect them to emerge winners at White Hart Lane this Saturday.

And Antonio Conte? The longer his war of words with the team continues, the less it does for him.

As a supporter voiced on BBC Radio 5 Live, the fans just want to see the old Conte from last year back again, they don’t want to see him whinging about things, especially considering how much he is being paid. They just wish he would get on with the job.

And Wenger? Arsenal fans probably wish he would step away from it now.

All about Liverpool – well, not all …

Umm, wasn’t Virgil van Dijk brought in with the intention of shoring up the Liverpool backline? The criticism of Liverpool all season is that while they had a good strike force of Coutinho, Mane, Salah and Firminho, and while the fab four are now the terrific three, and still scoring goals, everyone is still talking about the leaky backline.

Liverpool’s only win in their last four matches have come against Huddersfield Town. They lost 1-0 to Swansea (Swansea!), 2-3 to West Bromwich Albion and then now managed a 2-2 draw with Tottenham. On the basis of all those performances, you would be slightly pressed to see the impact of Van Dijk. That’s two losses, a draw and a win in four games – not exactly what you might call plugging the hole.

Jurgen Klopp might have some grievance with the way Tottenham earned the draw though. Having charged down the sideline after an injury-time penalty made it 2-1 in LIverpool’s favour, in the same style as Jose Mourinho ran the Old Trafford line with Porto, the fist pumping and head banging all came to a quick end when a Tottenham player ran over van Dijk’s outstretched leg. It’s like a heavy metal concert coming to an end after a power cut. Harry Kane, having been denied by Lloris Karius, this time managed to squeeze one away for a draw.

There’s no denying Liverpool are associated with a leaky defence. They are like the Arsenal of the north. Old boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must be wondering what he has gotten into. Having secured a move away from Highbury with the intention of playing more in central midfield and in a team that can make it into the top four, he is still on a team with a dodgy defence. A big expenditure on a big player who has yet to make an impact on the team.

Is Virgil van Dijk twinned with Alexandre Lacazette? The latter must be the world’s most expensive bookmark, not played much in the season (such as being left out against Liverpool) and now behind Aubameyang and Mkitharyan.

The penalty against Livepool was awarded after the referee Jon Moss and assistant referee had a long chat to determine if a penalty should have been awarded or not.

Aubameyang should have had his debut goal against Everton cancelled out for offside. His goal made it 4-0 for the Gunners before halftime. But why was there no video replay? Again, this brings into question the necessity of VAR and how it should be used. Rather than make it the referee’s prerogative, give managers a challenge in each half and let them use it when they want to. They can only have one in each half, or two over the game, so there is more impetus to save it for more important challenges at the end of the game – and it keeps the game moving.

Can Arsenal maintain their momentum? So far their January signings have done good, just like Batshuayi’s debut for Dortmund. Everton’s former Arsenal signing, Theo Walcott? On the end of a 5-1 drubbing. Can Olivier Giroud match a good transfer for Chelsea too?

Boxing Day roundup

On a day when Tottenham striker Harry Kane broke Alan Shearer’s calendar year scoring record with a 5-2 victory at Wembley over struggling Mauriccio Porchettino’s former Southampton team, what else happened?

Manchester United recovered from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2.

Liverpool put five goals past bottom placed Swansea. 5-0.

If you were Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, and you knew Harry Kane was seeking to break a record, would you not double team him for much of the game? Take him out of the equation, force the others to make plays without Kane, yet still try to go through him, and then strike on the counter? One wonders why Pellegrino did not consider that kind of tactic.

Bournemouth and West Ham drew 3-3, but the match ended in controversy when former Stoke striker Marco Arnautovic’s injury time goal was cancelled out by the Cherries Callum Wilson, who appeared to be in an offside position, and to also handle the ball.

The guy must think Thierry Henry is his idol. Henry, of course put the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup with his infamous handball.

If you take into account all the diving, handball and other misdemeanours on the field you may conclude that the modern game nowadays is about gaining an edge by deceiving the referee. And many players are tumbling like flies at the slightest jostle, yet referees seem apprehensive about awarding yellows for dives, or straight reds for lunges. Remember Harry Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling at Manchester City? Had he been sent off, he might have been banned and could have kissed the record goodbye.

How Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen. Last year after Sam Allardyce was sacked, he was touted as a possible manager, a young hand being steadied by an old manager such as Harry Redknapp. But now his team are in danger of being relegated, he no longer hears his name associated with being England manager any more.

It was goals galore at Liverpool and Tottenham, but the fact of the matter remains that outside the top six, only one other team – Burnley – has a positive goal difference. And that’s not much, because Sean Dyche’s men have only scored one more than they have conceded. And with James Tarkowski banned for a flagrant elbow that looked less intentional that Charlie Austin’s boot to the goalkeeper’s face, it is unlikely that Burnley will continue to maintain that positive goal difference.

Tottenham are posed to make a move for Everton’s Ross Barkley, currently out injured. Barkley was the thorn in former manager Ronald Koeman’s summer, as speculation over his future at Goodison continued to overshadow things at the club, even the departure of Romelo Lukaku. In a way Barkley was like the Alexis Sanchez of Merseyside, and perhaps when the transfer window opens both may find themselves being linked with other clubs again.

Ronald Koeman was boasted that he had Olivier Giroud nearly ready to sign for the Toffees but the deal collapsed because Giroud preferred to remain in London. Will Giroud consider Goodison again? He is behind Lacazette in the pecking order and also perhaps behind Sanchez, so it pretty much remains if Sanchez is going and Lacazette and Giroud play together. It would be interesting to see a 3-5-2 featuring Lacazette and Giroud as the forwards, as it would give the Arsenal wingers the chance to lob balls in the penalty area to trouble opposing centrebacks.

But the last Boxing Day word must remain with Harry Kane. He has only scored one less goal than Lionel Messi in all competitions and surely he must be in the running in the Ballon d’Or this year with a high chance of winning.

And then maybe it’ll be Kane to Spain. To one of the big two anyway.

What Chris Froome could learn from Jamie Vardy

Ah. Chris Froome missed out on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did it come as a surprise? Unfortunately in the week leading up to one of the most important sports awards of the year, the cyclist had a bad week in the press, savaged for his use of medicine in his sport … and the BBC of course could not risk giving him that kind of prestigious award under that kind of ominous cloud.

So Mo Farah got it instead.

Rewind back to 2016 in Leicester City’s magical season where they emerged champions. When the short list for the PFA Footballer of the Year was announced, it looked like this:

Dmitri Payet

Harry Kane

Jamie Vardy

Mesut Ozil

N’Golo Konte

Riyad Mahrez

Given that three of the six nominees were from Leicester’s team, it was a sure sign that one of them would win it.

But which one? If defense is your thing, then you would have voted Konte, now protecting the back four at Chelsea. But surely the award seemed destined for Jamie Vardy, in a fairy tale era where an Englishman set scoring records by scoring in consecutive matches and breaking the record long held by Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.

BBC. English corporation. English talent. Jamie Vardy. You might argue that Harry Kane was also in the running, but if you read the signs well, Leicester’s incredible season was not going to be overlooked. Harry Kane winning it over the three Leicester men? Unlikely.

Vardy seemed a shoo-in for the award, of which the ceremony was to be held on 24 April 2016.

Unfortunately for Vardy, in a match against West Ham on 17 April 2016, he was sent off. Not just sent off, but sent off for a theatrical dive with the intention to deceive the referee. He basically ran over his opponent’s outstretched leg and did his famous half-twist in mid-air. If you watch him now, he’s still doing it on the pitch. He must have had a lot of practice at that, the form’s almost always the same.

Vardy’s red card at a time the FA was trying to crack down on diving meant that it was impossible that he would receive the award. His subsequent protest and disrespect for the referee meant that if he were won the award, the FA would be endorsing a whole generation of disrespect towards referees.

So Vardy’s great season was undone by that one game close to that award.  It went to Mahrez instead.

Mo Salah won the recent African Footballer of the Year and impressed in the games leading up to it. But one wonders if he had slipped up in the run-up, whether he would have received it.

And Sadio Mane? While he may have been on the shortlist for the December announcement, he wouldn’t have been remembered for his outstanding play. It would have been remembered for the souvenir he gave to Man City keeper Ederson earlier in the season.

The lesson here? If you are nominated for any award, don’t do anything silly in the process.

The case for video replay

This is why we need video replays.

In the local derbies on Sunday – the Mancunian derby featuring Manchester City and Manchester United, and the Merserside derby featuring Liverpool against Everton – all four managers found themselves discussing penalty decisions or ones which could have been given but were not, and which turned out to have significant impact on the game and the final scoreline.
In the game of two Manchesters, United manager Jose Mourinho fumed that a late clash of feet between Ander Herrera and Nicolas Otamendi, which resulted in the former tumbling in the box, was deemed a dive and resulted in him receiving a yellow card. The game’s other talking point was the dive by City’s Gabriel Jesus, one where no contact was made but he grimaced and fell spectacularly, more so than Herrera, yet received not so much as even a talking to.

The other game ended in a draw but the taking point was one in which the tying penalty had been attained. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp was in an explosive mood, claiming Dominic Calvert-Lewin had gone to ground under the slightest of challenges. Everton manager Sam Allardyce of course defended his centre-forward’s actions, claiming that there had been a push in the box by Emre Can.

The referees were criticised in the post match interviews. Under Premier League rules referee performances should not be discussed, and both managers will pick up a fine for doing so. Klopp’s bitterness was apparent for all to see in his criticism of the referee and how he felt Everton had been let back in the game. Mourinho went one step further, criticising the referee by name and giving his own personal critique. “Michael Oliver had a good game but made a bad decision”.

But the managers were not the only ones questioning the referees. Players confronted the referees during key points in the game, and also after. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson could be seen raising his arms and shouting “What??” when the penalty was given.

The speed of the modern game has increased, and also the intent to deceive. Players are now playing more to get an opposing player sent off, because one men less means a numerical advantage at set pieces and changes the intent on the team with less players. If you have ten players you are more defensive and less attack minded because the other team will have more players and you will soon run out of energy if you try to match them, which is when you concede goals. Some teams – hello, Jose Mourinho even play defensively when they have eleven men, let alone ten! At the Manchester United game, the City fans taunted the home fans with “Park the bus, park the bus, Manchester United” – which is what they were doing with eleven men in a home game at Old Trafford.

How would video replays be implemented? This is where football could take a leaf from its American cousin’s book. The American football has a referee, sideline judges, ball judge, video official among other officials to manage a game of 60 minutes. Each team is allowed three challenges and if a challenge is unsuccessful a team is charged with a timeout. The modern football game could implement a system where teams get two challenges over the whole game. And if they lose a challenge then perhaps one player in the team has to sit out for five minutes of the game.
Implementing video replays has wider implications outside the game.

Football managers always blame the referees after a game because it is way of taking the heat for the team, deflecting the press. But it is not the reason for implementing video replay. The real reason is to stop a whole generation of youngsters challenging officials in game, copying what they see on the pitch from their idols, and developing a disrespect for authority, not just in the game but outside of it.

Video replay has implications outside of football. And that is why we need it.

Everton striker’s ban only increases call for video ref

Oumar Niasse was banned after being found guilty of “exaggerating contact in order to deceive”. The Everton striker was the first player in the top flight of English football to receive such a ban, although two other players in the lower leagues had also been similarly charged.

For those trivia buffs among us, Carlisle forward Shaun Miller was the first.

Niasse was found by a three-man panel to have exaggerated the impact of a normal contact under a challenge by Scott Dann in a game against Crystal Palace. The resulting penalty brought the game level at 1-1, and when Palace went ahead later on in the game, the equaliser from Everton was scored by … you guessed it, Niasse himself. The match finished 2-2, and there were various talking points:

Had Niasse been cautioned for the dive, the match might have taken on a different twist.

The tactics of the game change according to the flow of the game – that is what managers are for, to make changes to enable the team to best respond to how the game is developing. Had there been no 1-1 scoreline, and Niasse on a yellow, one might feel Crystal Palace might have played a more attacking game, instead of playing with caution in other to gain new boss Roy Hodgson a point.

And how terrible for the game that Niasse scored the goal that forced the draw. Crystal Palace might be correct in thinking that Niasse caused them two points in the grand scheme of things.

Would it hurt so much to have a video referee like they already do in sports such as rugby and American football? The pace of the modern football game has picked up so much that things happen quickly and decisions that could affect the game have to be made without the benefit of hindsight or review.

The argument against video referees is that it slows down the game. But this is really nonsense, and where football could take a leaf out of the book of sports such as tennis and American football. Each opposing player is granted three challenges in tennis, so over the course of a game there are a maximum of six stoppages. But the game can hinge on one or two major decisions going the wrong way, so players normally play on and leave dubious decisions early on in the game to save up of challenges they might need later.

In American football, both teams have three challenges. If a team is unsuccessful in overturning a decision with their challenge, they lose a timeout. The video referee has a certain amount of time to make a conclusive decision, and if the video replay is inconclusive then the ruling on the field stands.

A video official would not hurt football. Each team could be given two challenges in a game – either one in each half, or to be used at any point. It would save debates such as whether a ball crossed the goal line, whether a hand ball was deliberate, or whether there was an off the ball incident. In the same weekend that Niasse dived, Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi scored from an offside position after a free kick gained from a fair challenge. Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany should have been sent off in the second minute. Did those decisions have any significant impact in the game?

You bet. It is time to bring on the video referee as part of the evolving game.