English Football Weekly: Arsenal – Set Piece Kings, The Rainbow Laces Movement, and More

EPL Week 5 Recap: Set-Piece Arsenal, Self-Destructing Newcastle, Slick City

Imagine a 3-1 Arsenal v. Stoke City game at the Emirates where the victor has scored all three from set pieces and the loser from a slick passing move. In any other era, this would’ve been another loss for the Gunners against their rugby-playing bogey nemesis. But things have gotten weird since Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. They’ve taken on a new identity: increased confidence, better results, and—curiously—stronger set pieces. Imagine Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna all scoring—and a £42.5m Özil providing all three. Strange times in north London.

After a 1-4 opening-day capitulation against Manchester City, Newcastle United looked to be in trouble for the campaign ahead, not least because of their lack of signings (Joe Kinnear excepted). After two wins and a draw, and Yohan Cabaye returning to the fold, things seemed better. So the last thing anyone expected in a home game against newly-promoted Hull City was for another disastrous capitulation, but that was exactly what the 2-3 loss, surrendered from a winning 2-1 scoreline, on Saturday was. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, has notched the same number of points (7) as Alan Pardew, and the Tigers have been wonderful underdogs this season.

Not that Newcastle were the only ones to turn in horror shows this weekend, mind. Liverpool’s 0-1 reverse at Southampton showed all the things that could go wrong at Anfield if their opponents have the right setup to take advantage. The Saints have fast become the Reds’ bogey team in recent years; after all, the last league game Brendan Rodgers lost came earlier in the year at St. Mary’s. Speaking of losing away and things going wrong (Liverpool are, after all, only two points off table-topping Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), Sunderland turned in an abysmal performance again on Saturday—and lost their manager afterwards. More on that later.

The infamous 1-6 home loss in the Manchester derby remains a harrowing nightmare for many a Manchester United fan, but at least that was under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. So for his successor to begin life as a United manager by losing first to Liverpool and then to Manchester City—1-4 no less—surely even fewer encouragements. Yet it was the manner of the loss—that only Wayne Rooney, who scored a brilliant consolatory free kick—that was worrying. It was a limp display yet again, epitomized by the anonymous Ashley Young. Why David Moyes persists with the unconvincing and increasingly infuriating Young every week, only he knows.

On the home side, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s finest result since taking the reins at the Etihad Stadium this summer, and a scary proposition of what City could look like when they’re firing on all cylinders. We saw Sergio Aguero back to his best alongside Alvaro Negredo, who has surely usurped Edin Dzeko in the pecking order now, and Jesus Navas was equally rampant on the wing. Let’s reserve the biggest praise for Samir Nasri, who was castigated by Roberto Mancini for his part in Robin van Persie’s free-kick winner at the death last season. A complete turnaround—and this sets Pellegrini well on his way.

 

Arrivederci, Paolo Di Canio

13 games after his appointment on March 31, 2013, Paolo Di Canio has returned to the unemployment circle. He lasted less than six months at the Stadium of Light, and by the end, it was just a matter of time before chairman Ellis Short made the decision to let him go.

This was a guy who had a larger-than-life ego and a larger-than-life character, whose passion meant equally the provocation of his own fanbase and the spiting and crossing of opponents. For the last few weeks of last season, this could be tolerated, justified and even celebrated, as his 3-0 win in the Tyne-Wear derby and ultimately his rescue act earned himself a productive summer transfer window.

But in the end, Di Canio was just about talking the talk and not walking the walk. He talked a good game, especially when he first signed for Sunderland, criticizing predecessor Martin O’Neill and lambasting his players for their fitness levels. Just a week ago, there was his public shaming of new summer signing Cabral, and his confrontation of the angry away section after the dismal 0-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

Such controversial antics could be tolerated if the results were delivered along with them, but given that it all seemed to just be empty rhetoric, it became all the more inevitable that those fans would’ve given him abuse that they temporarily shelved following his salvation of Sunderland’s Premier League status. (Lest we forget, his political views and allegiances have courted far more controversy than necessary.) And it wasn’t just the fans: The final nail in the coffin was the players’ decision to complain about Di Canio’s actions. If your staff go beyond their means to get rid of you, your position is well and truly untenable.

What will last long in the memory and in his reputation, though, is the fact that he won’t change his style. If you’re to continue your career as a manager, Paolo, you’re going to have to work on that.

 

Rainbow laces aren’t enough

There’s been excellent work done around the globe in eradicating racism from football over the past decade, and barring some high-profile incidents resurfacing nowadays, most football fans proclaim that the beautiful game has come a long way, and long may it continue. Such organizations as Kick It Out have become part and parcel of the English game, and so it was just a matter of time before the winds of social change blew football’s way again, this time with homophobia as the focus.

This weekend, we saw the start of the Rainbow Laces Movement, if we can call it that, with high-profile players like Joey Barton, Phil Jagielka, John Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie about to adopt the laces, while BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker will also don a pair. Their attempts to publicize the plight and difficulties faced by gay footballers are admirable, as is the attempt to make #RBGF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) a trend on Twitter.

As ever, though, we have to consider both sides of the coin, and what the impact and legacy of this “movement” may be. It’s all well and good to don a pair of rainbow-colored shoelaces—which doesn’t require much of an effort at all—but the headlines and PR that this could and should attract on national TV run the risk of those involved becoming complacent in their actions. Ensuring a social movement is sustainable and productive isn’t just about the flag-bearers; it’s about what the follow-up actions are and how the lessons are taken on board.

And it’s also about how the movement is conducted. The gay-rights group behind the Rainbow Laces Movement, Stonewall, has seen considerable criticism with its PR approach, choosing to partner with a controversial commercial partner, Paddy Power, and not providing adequate communication in advance of its decision to send the laces directly to football clubs. This arrangement has allowed top clubs to, rightly or wrongly, boycott the campaign, either due to sponsorship interests or the lack of preparation time to decide whether or not to join up.

Either way, these shoelaces mark only the start of what will be a long, hard fight against homophobia in a testosterone-laden sport—if racism has taken this long to deal with and still remains a problem (albeit among just small sections of football fans), homophobia will surely take at least just as long. But a more sensibly run campaign could do wonders, and a more legitimately established organization like Kick It Out could see the right kinds of PR and activities involved. The FA, for one, have a toolkit that highlights several case studies involving football clubs, including Liverpool.

One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll take a lot more active involvement and inventiveness for any progress to be made. But this is a fascinating new movement in football, and we should pay attention to how the game is affected as a result.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

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