Sunday, 6 February 2011

Sometimes, just sometimes, you have to blame the ref. Newcastle report and thoughts.

Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4

Even for a team which specialises in collapses, this was a new low. I don't want to labour the point, but to blow a four goal lead takes a special kind of ineptitude. And yes, Abou Diaby's sending off hurt us, but there's no getting away from the fact that in our last four matches, we've seen five outrageous refereeing decisions go against us - the kind of decisions which dramatically change matches.

1) The drop-ball decision when we were through on goal against Ipswich.

2) Mark Clattenburg's decision to send off Seb Squillaci but not the Huddersfield player - despite them both committing professional fouls.

3) The ludicrous decision to let Louis Saha's goal stand in midweek, despite it being three yards offside.

4) The sending off for Abou Diaby, whilst Kevin Nolan gets away with the same thing - which incidentally was unprovoked - on Wojciech.

5) The award of a non-existent penalty which changed a two-goal lead with ten minutes to go to one, and left us wobbling. How can you be penalised for jumping for the ball?

I don't like to moan and bleat about referees, but there's something very odd going on here. If enough decisions go against you, eventually they'll come back to hurt you. That it happened in a game when we were 4-0 up is somewhat moot - if enough go against you, weird things can happen. It's worth pointing out that as an addendum to that list, Barton should have been sent off for two bookable offences (on Arshavin, and then the tackle on Diaby) and wasn't even booked, and Tiote's goal came from a non-existent free-kick.

It was a shame because we started so well. Walcott got in behind and finished nicely, Djourou headed home confidently from an excellent ball in from Arshavin, and Robin finished clinically to make it 3-0 within ten minutes. It was like the good old days where we could score three goals in a few minutes at any point in the game and completely kill it off. Sure, Newcastle had the ball in our territory a couple of times but that's football. People pointing to Laurent Koscielny assuredly mopping up in the first half and saying that Arsene should have readied them for more of this in the second half are missing the point. What with Robin crashing home after 26 minutes to make it 4-0, the first half was as close as we'll come to perfection all season. We dismantled Newcastle at will - nobody was seriously suggesting that the game would slip away from us.

And so to the second half.

I should probably make it clear at this point that I have a profound dislike for Alan Pardew. Any man who can provoke Arsene Wenger into a physical altercation must have something seriously wrong with him. I wasn't surprised that Pardew told his team to be more physical at half-time (I was surprised they didn't play like that originally)and losing Djourou after a couple of minutes to injury didn't help us with what followed.

But going down to ten men really didn't help us. What can I say about Diaby? His reaction to being tackled on the knee was eminently understandable, if not correct. And after Joey Barton's reaction, Abou was always going to see red. But, Barton should have been sent off for that tackle - it was all part of Phil Dowd's shocking afternoon. Shava skilled him in the first half, and Barton ploughed straight through the back of him - Dowd didn't even give a free-kick. If Barton had already been booked, he would have had less licence to rough up the Arsenal players; but more to the point, he would have been sent off for his tackle on Abou.

Forget Diaby's history of being injured by bad tackles, if Barton had been sent off, Abou wouldn't have reacted like that.

While we muddled through for a while, we were no longer really able to exert any dominance, mainly because we were over-run in midfield. Cesc barely saw the ball - but crucially, it was 4-0, it didn't matter. Then the Toon were given a penalty which seemed generous to these eyes. Fact is, Koscielny won the ball.

But 4-1 was still very comfortable. After the penalty went in, was in my eyes the turning point of the game. Nolan clearly manhandled Szczesny to get the ball - WHEN IT WAS ARSENAL POSESSION - and for his troubles, Szczesny was booked. He had the ball for about five second. It was a shocking piece of refereeing, one of the worst decisions I've ever seen. Nolan should have been sent off, Newcastle's man advantage would have disappeared, and Arsenal would probably have closed out a routine victory. But no, the thug Nolan was allowed to stay on the pitch. It was a decision made all the more unforgivable that when Cesc and Robin wanted to kick-off at 4-4, the Newcastle players were given all the time in the world to amble back. Complaining about the amount of stoppage time is probably a little disingenuous, but of all the crass and stupid refereeing decisions I've seen in my time, Dowd can never live that down. If referees really are assessed and picked on merit, then Dowd shouldn't referee again in the Premier League for several weeks. Even writing this now, over a day after the incident it makes my blood boil. After a week where we've been told about how we should respect referees, how can we possibly do so when we witness decisions like that?

And in spite of all that, having watched the game live and then watched highlights as well, I'm hard-pressed to explain how we conceded four goals. I felt we sat too deep after Newcastle scored their first goal, but it's worth noting that Szczesny made several good saves - this wasn't purely Newcastle getting not so much the rub of the green, as the entire green itself. It can't purely be a statistical quirk that Koscielny and Squillaci concede so many goals together.

I know Newcastle had the momentum, but at 4-3, with Djourou on the pitch you'd have backed us to hold out and take three points back with us to London. It's weird because at 4-2 I felt confident. The bookies were still offering 100/1 on the draw, and it was only the award of a completely non-existent penalty kick which changed things.

But as I said, we were over-run in midfield. Rosicky and Eboue came on and both were pretty hopeless. I accept Arshavin doesn't necessarily work the hardest, but I can't help but agree with Kevin Whitcher that Rosicky is finished. Fine, take off Shava, but bring on a man like Chamakh who gives us some presence and doesn't always give the ball away. Eboue clearly tries hard but I just don't think he's especially talented. And Theo's pace always stops teams throwing too many players forward. Equally though, it's very easy to criticise Wenger's substitutions after the event - at the time it just looked like he was introducing some fresh legs to a fairly dead game.

Equally though, I can't overlook that in the past ten months, we've lost two games from 2-0 up, and now drawn one from four goals up. At some point questions have to be asked about how this keeps happening. We were utterly dominant in the first half, yet a sending off, an injury, and we're on the back foot. At 4-0 up, we should push up and dictate play, pretty much regardles of circumstances. And, as the manager said, instead we tried to protect the lead. Odd indeed.

Next up it's Wolves, and it will be interesting to see how we react - I'd love to think we'll come out all guns blazing, but it could equally be a tetchy 90 minutes. First though, we need to avoid injuries in the pointless midweek internationals.

Keep the faith.

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