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Newcastle 4 - 4 Arsenal: match report / philosophical crisis


0-1 Walcott 1'
0-2 Djourou 3'
0-3 van Persie 10'
0-4 van Persie 26'
1-4 Barton pk 68'
2-4 Best 75'
3-4 Barton pk 82'
4-4 Tiote 87'

Ten-men Arsenal lost a four-goal halftime lead against Newcastle today as the Magpies came from behind after Abou Diaby was sent off for shoving Joey Barton in the 50th minute at St. James' Park.  After completely dominating the first half against inept Newcastle defending, Arsenal, down to ten men in the second half and missing Johan Djourou, couldn't maintain possession and ultimately paid the price, as Barton converted two penalties, Leon Best scored a goal after a penalty area scrum, and Cheik Tiote scored on a wonderful volley.

Here endeth the objective match report.  What follows is very unusual for me on this site, so please, I beg your indulgence.  I'm still a little heated.

First off, this match made my head spin.  After the final whistle blew, I was honestly not sure how I felt about the following things in no particular order: the match itself, the Premier League, the concept of nation, justice, aesthetics, football, and writing.  One must acknowledge that this was a match that, for the neutral, was probably one of the finest that they'll ever see.  Credit, too, must go to Newcastle, who found a way back into a match after being vastly, and I mean vastly, outplayed by superior technical opposition in the first half.

Some random observations from the match that I can't quite place into a narrative, before we move into the heart of the matter:

  • Newcastle's second penalty was one of the softest anyone is likely to see.
  • Kevin Nolan was given a yellow card for shoving Wojciech Szczesny in much the same way that Diaby shoved Barton.  Szczesny didn't give the ball back fast enough for Nolan after the first penalty kick; Joey Barton nearly broke Diaby's leg.  One received a yellow, the other a red.  Just sayin'.
  • Cheik Tiote's goal was wonderful, brilliant.  Great volley.  No doubt.
  • Robin van Persie was perhaps onside for his injury time goal that would've put Arsenal up 5-4.
  • Sebastien Squillaci was not a good replacement today for Johan Djourou.
  • If Djourou is hurt badly, Arsenal are in some hot water.  He has been the player of 2011 for the team.
  • Arsenal scored four wonderfully technical goals.
  • We're going to be on the receiving end of a number of jokes for some time, and we're going to have to take it, frankly.
  • That being said, the press are going to mythologize the heck out of this match.
  • We should've won, regardless.
  • The impact on the match of this sending off should've been very small (chart courtesy of Graham MacAree, manager of We Ain't Got No History, SBN soccer manager, and all around wizard, just like Gandalf):

None of the above is what's most on my mind, though.

Fox Soccer Channel named Joey Barton man of the match.  No matter what one thinks of this, the facts are that his actions had a tremendous bearing on the outcome.  Justice, fairness, and equity work in very strange ways in football; much as the laws of mechanical physics break down at the quantum level, "fairness" does not work in quite the same ways on the pitch as off.

In the 50th minute, Barton executed an extremely dangerous, fast, hard, tackle, leading with his knee, into the planted shin of Diaby, making contact with the ball before the Frenchman.  In the replay, one could see Diaby's tibia flex noticeably upon impact.

Let's be clear about this: we were a few pounds of force away from another Aaron Ramsey incident.  The list of Arsenal players who have had their legs broken horribly in the past six years by reckless, unnecessarily physical tackles: Aaron Ramsey, Eduardo, and, oh yes, that's right: Abou Diaby.

Barton was not booked.  Diaby got up, shoved his head, and then shoved Kevin Nolan.  He was sent off.

Diaby's reaction was no doubt a bad idea in the context of the match.  One cannot give Newcastle a spark of life, an incentive, and a man advantage there, no matter how big your lead.  One just cannot do that in professional sports.

However (and most will not agree, I think): I do not blame Diaby at all for how he reacted, not just because I am a hothead myself and would have done the same, but because this tackle, in my eyes, is larger than this game.  This tackle was not far from crippling a star-crossed man (again) and possibly ending his career at age 24.  As OleGunner put it on twitter after the match: "You know what I'd have taken a 9 nil loss if it meant Diaby standing up for himself. Only so much a man should be asked to take".  Earlier this year, we saw Bacary Sagna lose his temper in a similar fashion after Lee Bowyer stamped him multiple times.  It is a truism that the retaliation always gets punished in sports, but Arsenal aren't given much protection by the referees, and their frustration is beginning to show.

Football is a physical sport, yes.  Unlike rugby or American football, though, the physical play is not at the heart of the object of the sport.  It is legal to use physical contact to gain advantage in those sports; in football, the ways that this is done are pretty circumscribed by the rules.  Barton may have had malice in mind, or he may not have.  It is irrelevant.  He used an unnecessary amount of force in trying to win the ball, and that is against the rules.  It was not called as such, and Diaby reacted.

This is what is so hard for me, personally.  The refereeing in football (maybe particularly in England, although I am not sure) is so full of gray area at the moment.  The standard of what is allowed and what is immediately clamped down upon varies from game to game, from referee to referee, so much that is impossible to know what is acceptable.

Physical play, by itself, is not a problem.  It is legitimate to increase physical pressure to try to work back into a match, no doubt, within legality.  It is a perfectly acceptable modality in sport, within reason.  Some teams, such as Arsenal, mix only a little bit in with their more technical play, and succeed.  Other teams find success leading with their physical play and mixing in a bit of technique.

Technique, though, when stepped up, does not increase danger.

Increased physical play finds release valves in other sports, such as hockey, where a struggling team can find spark through increased legal checking or sanctioned fighting, and barring either of those, ejection.  In basketball, the valve is players getting technical fouls and then getting ejected.

In football, this valve exists in one place: the referee's pocket.  Pressure and chippiness do not dissipate; they build.  The referee's the only one who can slow it.  Physical intimidation is not as much part of the fabric of the game as in other contact sports.  This is what Diaby was reacting to; he felt that Barton had legitimately come close to breaking his leg due to built-up physical pressure, and he knew that nothing was being done to try to stem the tide.

Thus, I do not blame Diaby for what he did.  His action made the match slippery and difficult for Arsenal, but Diaby has been down the broken leg road before, and I cannot honestly say I would not have done the same thing today had I been in his place.

We will react well.  We will overcome.  This is but one match out of 38 in the grand scheme.  Losing Djourou for a bit is going to be really tough, worse than drawing today, perhaps.  Arsenal do have some real concerns coming out of this match, and Arsène Wenger will have to re-examine his decision to sit back on a lead after the sending off, no matter the reason.  An away draw is not the end of the world.

Thanks for your patience, everyone.  Longer fuse tomorrow.