Arsenal 4—Bolton 1
"From the two games against Blackburn and Bolton, two years ago we would not have taken six points."-Arséne Wenger
Playing Blackburn and then Bolton in consecutive league matches begins to sketch the evolutionary curve of style in the league. Blackburn will beat their opponents by clubbing, sometimes heightening the form to Stanley Kubrick’s dawning of man. Bolton still play directly, but if there isn’t a little evidence of style in their play, then it’s there in intent and spirit. Owen Coyle’s work-in-progress aims not to replace boulder with polished stone, but carve something out of it.
For Arsenal, facing one bullish club after the other presents them with an immediate chance to determine if matching the strength of Blackburn was uncharacteristic. Okay, so you beat Blackburn, well done. Now here…try some Bolton, just as fibrous, but a little spicier.
There are warm relations between the two clubs over Jack Wilshere’s loan agreement, but a new era at Bolton hasn’t curbed the fiesty tussle of ideological differences going back to Sam Allardyce. The players are quick to find each other irritating. They may even be irritated at each other before the game, finding deficiencies in the visitor’s facilities that are reflective the host’s character.
During matches, a few from each side progress from irritated to angry as the fouls and perceived injustices accumulate. There are always good hard tackles and one or two bad ones when these clubs meet. Some of the bad taste carried away from these matches dissipates, while some of it lingers (Wiliam Gallas’ tackle on Mark Davis) waiting to be re-irritated. This last match was no exception. It unabashedly began where things left off. Recently, this has ended with Arsenal winning.
Kevin Davies got things started after eighteen minutes by receiving a yellow card for a late tackle on Wilshere. The foul ended a sequence that Davies began by taking out Thomas Rosicky—a sure caution overlooked by referee Stuart Atwell.
Play stopped while a medic attended to Wilshere, which offered plenty of time for the two to acknowledge their shared past, be cool with what has just happened, but replays catch no communication between them. A stoic Davies stood there no more than ten yards away, and then grew a little irritated when handed a yellow card. Wilshere, proving to be tough as nails, looked like he needed only a snifter of whole milk to get on with things. The entire episode was so deeply impersonal that it could only be just part of the game.
Bad tackles have been on the rise, and spiking recently. The high sensitivity to the trend has led to more tackles being deemed excessive. On the other hand, players constantly test the limit of what they can get away with. The English style asks for this freedom, and it’s granted and thoroughly rewarding, until it crosses the line into violence.
The problem is less that the line is thin or fuzzy, but that the ‘where’ and ‘how’ it manifests is unpredictable. The conditions of the modern game—strength, speed, and skill— exert forces too quick and powerful for the body. Players have always sought to influence and define the limit, but the severity and frequency of injurious tackles has revealed a malicious impulse running through the league, which is a perverse form of influence and definition. It’s no coincidence that the trend is found more frequently in lesser-skilled, often bottom-of-the-table teams, who justify “tough” play as a legitimate strategy for competing against better teams, as well as for surviving in the Premier League.
There are occasions when what a player has gotten away with in the past suddenly goes awry; sometimes the rage kicks in and he’s not trying to get away with anything; and sometimes there is a display that correlates a player’s excessively aggressive attitude with the assertion of the distinctly English character in the game.
Perhaps a player was too over-eager to prove he understands and belongs in the league. But one other explanation to surface in this discussion is that players are being wound up before matches. Influence is exerted from the outside, from somewhere off the pitch, an indictment of managers and coaching staffs without naming them. Pregame routines prepare aggression to be incited, stimulates a maximum release of testosterone that sends eyes bulging and veins popping.
Thuggery and malfeasance are serious indictments and nearly impossible to prove, but air plausibility in the wider cultural context.
The Premier League is arguably the most diverse in Europe. The assertion of the English character through one of the game’s most distinctive traits suggests a connection between winding up a player and a feeling that the English game is under threat. The unforgettable reminder of a painful tackle is a defensive reaction to the apparent dilution of the game’s distinction by international elements.
This feeds into the argument over foreign-born players. The rapid and voluminous movement of global capital and people would not exempt football from its influence. Players from abroad, and the styles and approaches to the game that accompany them, come to England because they share the allure of the English game, the magnetism of its pace and power. This allure is fed is in part by the Premier League’s marketing machine as well as its reach into foreign markets from where the best or most promising players are drawn.
The frequency of bad tackles both punished and unpunished, after there has been a lengthy league-wide discussion on the subject, invites a fair criticism against the league, and by extension, referees whose apparent inaction looks like collusion.
But the game evolves and develops patterns of behavior far faster than the bureaucratic response. The lag or caution, built into an organization’s DNA, is difficult to reform. In light of historical fact, criticism has little choice but to grant governance time to make changes in order for a charge of incompetence to gain legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable for those who are seriously injured in the meantime.
League action, if perceived as slow, may be deliberate for fear that an expedient or heavy-handed approach, which must be applied during games, could upset the balance, or worse, threaten to eliminate a defining expression of the English game —the unique combination of strength, pace, skill, and attitude that must be thoroughly cleansed, but thoroughly preserved.
Moving and standardizing the limit is a delicate matter. Referees have a difficult task. The collective redefinition is a process that implies a standard in development, but one being applied unevenly; bad tackles are missed while others of less severity receive harsh punishment. One would assume the wildest inconsistencies will disappear as continuity is implemented.
Referees’ efforts to find the right balance should be supported with patience, so that blame for shredded ligaments and double fractures will fall on bad tacklers and their enablers whose behavior has prompted the reform in the first place.
Gary Cahill’s red card was arguably harsh, but if Bolton claims the sending-off was unjust, then they must recognize justice in the form of reprieve not equal counter-punishment. Paul Robinson, one of the greatest complainers in the game (and he’s neither French nor continental), and whose immediacy to red-faced anger after nearly every call against him is indicative of a man who is too wound up, regardless of who does the winding. Both referee and linesman missed his studs-up tackle into Abu Diaby. Davies embodies the impersonal friction between the two clubs, while Robinson looked set on keeping it personal.
Diaby gingerly walked off the field and was substituted. It could have been a game-changing moment for all the wrong reasons. Cahill’s red card eight minutes prior had already shifted the balance and marks where the inconsistency and unfairness was compounded from Bolton’s perspective. Prior to the Cahill foul, a counter-punishment for Alex Song’s tackle on Lee Chung-yong was not forthcoming. The accumulating sense of injustice may have led to Robinson taking the law into his own hands. An increasingly frustrated ten-man Bolton was losing focus.
Minutes after Robinson chopped down Diaby, Alex Song scored his first of the season to make it 3—1 Arsenal. Receiving a short pass with little space to maneuver, Song took one touch forward, forced Adam Bogdan—the most Barbarossian of goalkeepers (a red Robinson could only angrily envy)—to commit, and from the touchline chipped the ball into the corner.
This took the air of competitiveness out of the game and it’s no surprise Arsenal scored a fourth, when Carlos Vela, five minutes after replacing Marouane Chamakh, finished off a candied sequence to ensure an Arsenal win.
If Arsenal continue implementing their physical side this season, and Bolton, under Owen Coyle, continue to turn Gary Megson’s cavemen into an evolved side of skill and sharp passing—flashes of which were evident against Arsenal— then the return fixture at Bolton next April promises to have everything hoped for, including clean hard tackles.
Side note: Owen Coyle looks to be one of the most promising new managers in the league. From what’s been said, he has earned the respect of players, coaches, and the media. But he compromises his stature and authority by coaching from the sideline in Trotters’ shorts and knee-high socks (no shin pads) pulled up to the knees, looking like a player who has lost all his tannin and believes he still plays for the old New York Cosmos.