Chris Samba and David Dunn shove in a goal. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
prag/ma/tism (prāg'mə-tĭz'əm) (n.) Def. 2: A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.
-- From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
Desigunner has put together a superb analysis of the technically illegal tactics which Blackburn employed to help score both of their goals on Monday, which everyone should take a look at. Not only is his analysis of the fouling by Blackburn nigh-indisputable, his conclusion's reminder that supporters should not place the blame on Lukasz Fabianski for the goals is a necessary corrective when one forgets that the team defends, well, as a team.
This, of course, does raise a number of additional questions.
Those familiar with the EPL blogosphere and fanbases will probably have noticed two distinct strains of thinking. There are those supporters for whom getting results overrides any one tactical system and who thusly claim the standard of "pragmatism", i.e. that the problem is how to win, and whatever system gets the most points is the best or most beautiful. Then, there are those supporters for whom good results should flow directly from whatever system is the most aesthetically pleasing or fair-minded or joyous. Arsenal supporters by no means fit into one category or the other, of course.
And of course, football is not that simple. The press and some supporters accuse Arsène Wenger of putting aesthetic concerns before getting results, but this accusation misunderstands the question; Wenger sees his style of play as the best-suited to achieving results, and therefore the duality breaks down in his thinking. It is not that he does not care about defending or hard work. He cares about them very much, indeed, but sees them as positive forces which exist more to propel his team forward than to completely shut down the play of the other team. In his mind, football seems to be not a matter of stopping the opposition so much as it is a matter of overcoming them to meet one's own goals, which is not necessarily the same thing as not caring about defending.
Without going too far down the philosophical rabbit hole today, though, Arsenal's play this weekend has once again brought these issues to the fore. Whether or not one disagrees with Desigunner's conclusions (to name but one possible disagreement: defending was not at issue when Fabianski made blunders at Porto), there is another issue at work here that goes beyond the quality of Arsenal's players. This is the question of whether Arsenal must somehow "deal" with the problem of teams playing illegally against them due to some received notion of them being "shaky" or "soft", or whether it is up to the FA to get their officials to referee the match according to the rules.
There really can be no question that Blackburn players illegally interfered with Fabianski and Sol Campbell, according to the letter of the law. However, it is also clear that referees overlook many infractions of the rules. Numerous bloggers and pundits have suggested that this is the reality of today's EPL and that Arsenal had better get used to it and had better learn to push and shove and snarl and hiss and grunt and punch etc. This suggestion conveniently overlooks that Campbell had 500 pounds of human pushing back against him and that Fabianski was never going to be able to shove Samba out of the way for either goal.
So: is this a case of the bigger man simply using his size tactically, or is it illegal? Should Arsenal learn to cope with bigger, stronger athletes and adjust their tactics accordingly, or is this a problem that the FA and EPL should work to correct?