Controversy good for football

By Martin Samuel, September 7, 2010

There was a very good reason why the Football Association decided Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, had no case to answer in his criticism of Stoke City's "rugby" tactics.

He is 61 next month, has been a football manager for 29 years and has earned the right to say what he damn well likes.

Experience provides a certain cache. All managers will have devoted their professional lives to football and should be let off the leash to give their views on the game. In the case of the erudite Wenger it almost defies belief that some wish him censored. If Wenger cannot say what he thinks about the way football is played without a draconian call to account, what hope is there?

Wenger fits into the same category as Sir Alex Ferguson, in that the majority of supporters would listen all day to his views as he talked football. He is biased, of course – which manager isn't? – but there is not an aspect of football's strategy, morality, past or future that he has not considered. This is the man Tony Pulis, manager of Stoke City, wanted silenced. How fortunate that the FA saw sense.

Pulis has been around the block, too. He is younger than Wenger at 52, but has spent two decades in coaching and management roles. When Wenger criticised the physical play of his Stoke team, particularly at dead ball set-pieces, he had every right to reply, and in the strongest terms. To go to the authorities, as Pulis did however, was petty. Football needs talking points, not for the sake of headlines, but to contribute to its development.

Some of the issues Wenger raised, about the way goalkeepers are now deliberately blocked off in the six yard box, were valid.

Wenger's assertions were no doubt timed for the visit to Blackburn Rovers and because it would have been inflammatory to talk about Sam Allardyce's team, he used Stoke as his example instead. They have similar styles from dead balls. A big guy, maybe two, placed around the goalkeeper to make it harder for him to come off his line. Wenger thinks this is obstruction, and many are inclined to agree. There has to be a purpose to a position, other than to stop the movement of an opponent.

Where Wenger went wrong was his comparison to rugby. You can't obstruct in that sport, either. The rules forbid blocking an opponent to prevent a tackle, acting as a defensive shield and deliberately getting in the way of an opponent to stop him reaching the ball first. Standing in a position which stops an opponent playing the ball is also outlawed. This is pretty much what Stoke and Blackburn are doing. In rugby, for each one of these offences, a penalty is awarded. In football, referees are increasingly turning a blind eye. This was Wenger's complaint and it deserved a wider audience.

Nobody has to agree with him, but if a manager with almost 30 years in the game is not allowed to have an opinion, who will inform football's debate? We need to encourage the views of men like Wenger, not stifle them.

    Last updated: 1:31pm, September 7 2010