17 September 2005

Arsenal: Thun, ESPN, RVP

So of course: Arsenal 2-1 Thun in the first game of the Champions League group stage. And if you were waiting for me to tell you that... well then, I'd love to hear why you read this blog, because I'm not sure what you're here for.

(And I meant that seriously, actually. Do we get US readers who are interested but casual or new to soccer? That would be good to know.)

I haven't commented on the match, because I haven't seen the game. In the US, Champions League games are carried by the ESPN stations (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes). They just don't care about soccer, and it shows. They show two matches on Tuesday and Wednesday. But two of those are shown on ESPN Deportes (spanish-language ESPN), so they tend to show Spanish teams: this week, it was Lyon vs. Real Madrid and Werder Bremen vs. Barcelona. (The commentary is in Spanish, but at least I can see the game.) The other two games, on ESPN2, were Real Betis vs. Liverpool and Villareal vs. Man Utd.

So, two games a day, on two of their smaller channels. I think ESPN expects me to be grateful. Right. But why not put another game on ESPN? Oh, that's right, they have important things to show. Let's see... Tuesday, that was "2005 And 1 Mix Tape Tour presented by Mountain Dew". Wednesday, it was imperative to show "NFL Films: Lost Treasures Volume XV". I wouldn't doubt that this kind of garbage actually draws more viewers in the US than real sports. But if that's all that ESPN cares about, then they shouldn't buy the rights to the games! They could try to build understanding and appreciation for the sport; instead, they ghettoize it and show garbage like this instead. ESPN is rapidly becoming as relevant to sports as MTV is to music. Which is to say: not at all.

And don't get me started on Soccernet, which is also an ESPN property. In short: very good soccer coverage, but they know nothing about the IT side of the world. Here's a subtle hint: your redesign is utter crap.

Anyway. The Thun game was much tighter than it should be. Arsenal have developed a surprising unwillingness to score this year. Often you see Arsenal holding loads of posession just outside the penalty area, without working a clear chance or taking any shots. It's usually described as "waiting for the perfect goal," which I think sums it up well. They seem unwilling to take a chance, instead expecting their ball movement to open gaping holes in the defense. But teams are now defending the Gunners by packing the box, putting enough players behind the ball that sheer numbers make it difficult to open a path to the goal.

Arsenal haven't adjusted to this yet. At the moment they're too predictable; they need to change things up a bit. Take some 30-yard shots... and make sure someone is lurking in case the keeper spills the ball. (Mr. Pires, call your office.) It's not going to work often, but it will work sometimes, and it will force the defense to push out farther.

The one event I need to see is Robin van Persie's foul. He drew a red card for a high foot that caught Alen Orman in the shoulder and face. The consensus seems to be that it was a reckless challenge, but that there was no malice in it. Arsenal fans (and the English press, to a lesser degree) have derided the call, arguing that a yellow would have been appropriate.

Since I haven't seen the foul, I can't comment specifically. But my gut is that RVP has little to complain about. As I wrote back in August, it seems that FIFA have asked referees to hold to the letter of the law regarding dangerous challenges. The law states: "A tackle, which endangers the safety of an opponent, must be sanctioned as serious foul play." Which means a straight red. This is an explicit FIFA decision on interpreting Law 12. And I think it's correct, too. Players who get out of control can be a serious threat, even if their intentions aren't malicious. There's still room for interpretation on what "endangers the safety of an opponent," so I can't say whether I agree with the specific call. But seven stiches in the face certainly makes it sound like a dangerous challenge, at least when delivered by a boot at eye level.

Next up: Everton at Highbury on Monday. Of course, that sucks for the US fan, since the game will happen while I'm at the office. I will attempt to remain ignorant of the result for a few hours, until I get home and can watch it on Tivo. So — shh!

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