There are some games where we as fans get to analyze the action, scrutinize the team, and judge the performance — for better or for worse. Then there are games like yesterday where that ability is taken away from us entirely and we are left feeling a bit cheated on the day.
Inevitably, those days often correlate with being on the wrong end of things, but there certainly are games in which the opposition goes down to 10 men and the response is to get numbers forward which isn’t entirely reflective of long term plans or growth.
I don’t think a single Arsenal fan will have woken up today without feeling hard done by yesterday’s 90 minutes. Well, actually, yesterday’s 47 minutes considering Arsenal’s dominance for the first 45 +1 minute of injury time.
That decision is going to run throughout every conversation and dominate it. Are there other things to talk about? Probably, and we will touch on a couple, but it’s the end of the half decision that is going to drive everyone nuts — without even mentioning the fact that Arsenal were in complete control.
It’s deep into stoppage time. You can maybe fault Bernd Leno for not wasting a bit more clock and ensuring it’s the final kick, but that might be a stretch. You can point to Luiz challenging for the second ball with a midfield pulled out of position that opens the avenue in behind. We have talked about the importance of that backline winning their individual battles this year, but losing that contest doesn’t award them a penalty.
You can even get really critical and say, look Luiz you need to recognize the state of the game and your team’s dominance, give them the shot, and hold up your hand for accountability — but keep yourself on the pitch. It’s not the first time in Luiz’s stint at Arsenal that he has attempted to fix a situation and had it result in a sending off.
He does chose to cut across the back of the attacker which opens up the possibility of clipping him and having this exact situation occur, but truthfully, Luiz doesn’t really make any attempt. He just cuts in, the kicking foot of Willian (of course) Jose nicks his knee in the most minute manner, and he hits the turf.
For me, this is where the ref needs to confidently grab hold of the situation, settle himself, and think it through a bit more. Instead, he beelines straight for Luiz, pulls out the red, and declares the penalty. Possibly more frustrating is the lack of intervention from VAR who have the view, see the incidental contact, and don’t work with Craig Pawson to reduce it to yellow. Because the “letter of the law” — I may assault the next person that says that — is incredibly odd in this situation.
Essentially, what people stated, as they attempted to wrap their heads around this, is that the ruling put in place to reduce the number of red card + penalty decisions only applies to fouls that see a defender play the ball. It does not apply to fouls committed without an attempt to play the ball. This means, when Luiz’s knee doinked Jose’s foot, it became equivalent to a player yanking an attacker down with no intent for the ball. This also means, “by the letter of the law” (eye roll while I barf) that Luiz would have remained on the pitch had he decided to absolutely clean out Jose, going for the ball, but committing a significantly more dangerous foul. This shouldn’t be the case.
All evening I kept coming back to one man. Someone I consider to be one of the best referees this game has had: Pierluigi Collina
The reason I thought about him is because he has made some clear statements about his philosophy surrounding officiating that certainly apply.
“For a referee, preparation means a lot of things, not just exercising, not just knowing the rules of the game. He has to know how to interpret those rules. The rules allow the referee to interpret situations from his point of view.”Pierluigi Collina
To me this is an aspect of officiating that has been removed through extensive rule changes and VAR, as the game looks to create a ruling that makes every plausible, controversial situation a black or white situation, and it’s just not possible. Nor is it probably a great idea.
I understand that there is a contingency out there that would supply the rebuttal that interpretation leads to inconsistency, and it’s a fair argument. VAR is supposed to cut down on inconsistency — not sure it has — these rules changes are supposed to make sure the result of a ref’s decision is the same match after match, regardless of the official across the league, but it hasn’t and it may just be one of those goals that pretends human fallacy is something that can be overcome.
Referees need to be given the confidence to interpret the rules and the rules probably need to find a place that offers guidance but doesn’t eliminate that room for interpretation. VAR has not only exposed the quantity of errors from referees, it has also removed the initiative from refs to control and interpret. Instead, they are essentially told to leave it to VAR to get right, but there are so many flaws with that.
Luiz didn’t play the ball, true. He also didn’t really play the man nor make any real attempt to bring him down in a fashion that justifies altering the course of the match that severely. Is it still a penalty? Okay. I can rationalize and understand the conclusion that contact was made, intentionally or not, and a foul was committed. My issue lies with the unyielding ability within these rules to navigate outside the line of “if, than statements” that set off like a chain reaction.
It’s never a red card for me, it’s a poor rule if it’s written as such, and it doesn’t do much for empowering refs or progressing the game. I think Craig Pawson has done really poorly there, and whether Arsenal appeal it or not, I couldn’t really care less. The damage is done, the points are lost.
From there Arsenal go into the half and they came out with the change of Gabriel for Lacazette. Some won’t have agreed with the choice, but I don’t know. It’s either Lacazette or Emile Smith Rowe probably coming off and Arteta knows he has two wingers that can cause problems, and Lacazette would probably have dropped deep into that midfield role anyhow — pick your poison.
Obviously, Wolves come out smelling blood in the water and bury the game with a shot from Moutinho that is an absolutely pure strike on net. 2-1. Arsenal have a chance or two in the second half, but things get even more dire in the 72nd minute when Leno races out of his box, miss judges the ball and handles it. He’s sent off reducing Arsenal to 9 players meaning both he and Luiz will miss the Villa match.
It’s a moment of madness from Leno, it probably puts everything completely out of reach, but I can’t help but feel it’s all dominoes from the decision in the first half. It would have been great had Arsenal managed to level things and somehow grab a point, but the game was a bit spoiled by that point.
Those are my thoughts on mostly just the red card of course, but I will try to grab a few takeaways from this that go beyond refereeing and VAR as Arsenal do have important games ahead of them.
Possibly the best half Arsenal have played this season
The first 45 minutes of this match was an Arsenal team running rampant against opposition to a degree in which we have not gotten to see frequently. The passing was excellent, the player rotation between the front three and the midfield was fluid and superb, the pressing off the ball and defensive workrate to win it back was outstanding. Arsenal controlled the wings where Wolves look to play, they shut down transitions early, they closed spaces and swarmed in numbers.
It’s this takeaway that probably makes the rest that much harder to take. In the first half, Arsenal had 6 shots, one hit the woodwork, 3 on target; they got their goal through Pepe; they had 90% pass success; they 53% possession; and they were forcing some last man tackles and unsustainable efforts from Wolves. The dam was crumbling and the floodwaters were coming.
Arsenal must bury the result, but remember that level of play. Remember the work they put in, the movement they made, and bring that to Aston Villa. It was some of the best team football we have seen out of them under Arteta. A shame it was ruined.
Finishing chances when you have them
It was the story of the match against Manchester United, although it went both ways. But, Arsenal struggled to make use of the early chances they had that should have been taken to bury this Wolves team early.
Saka has gotten to the point where you would bet on him to finish that chance routinely, Saka also forced a good save minutes after that. Pepe had a chance before he eventually scored the opener, and it leaves you feeling like Arsenal should have been up by 2 or 3 before that sending off.
That doesn’t change opinions about the match overall. I would remind people that you can be furious with the officiating and still comment on the lack of finishing, the Leno mistake to see red, or the mistakes that led up to penalty.
Becoming that team that is lethal early in matches is one of the next stages for this Arsenal side. How many times have you seen Pep’s City team score two goals in the first 25 minutes and coast through the rest of the match? I have zero doubts that the dominance would have continued into the second half had Luiz stayed on the pitch, but Arsenal could have used some efficiency with their early chances given how they dominated.
The response matters, now more than the result itself
We expected Arsenal to drop points during this tough run. Certainly not in this fashion, certainly not with this kind of referee involvement, but it’s a tough run and it was likely that at some point this team would hit another bump in the road. How they choose to respond to this is what matters most.
Do they carry the chip on their shoulder, dig deep, and take it to Aston Villa and Leeds? If so, it begins to make up for some of this — even if we inevitably would be sitting here saying, “well they should have gotten all 9”.
Or, do they let this bother them and succumb to defeat against Villa, another defeat against Leeds and carry this burden with them into the Europa League which probably matters more to them than the Premier League in terms of priority? If that is the result, I think they compound the issue and really let themselves down.
Hopefully they take the night, rage it out, and get down to work because there is little they can do about this except go out and compete in these big games with the level of intensity they showed in the first half (see point above).
We have been beat by wolves, we have been pushed to our limits by Wolves… the Wolves of last night were bad. They were not good. It’s a great goal from Moutinho with all the confidence in the world, but they were beaten and flat until that red card gave them life. It’s an unacceptable, sour finish and a match taken out of our hands. For anyone that feels cheated by it, yeah I hear you. I do as well.
Just not much else to say about it. Stay well, Villa at the weekend.