‘Stop Arsenal Playing’ – Robbie Savage Defends Cynical Anti-Football

Ollie Irish

14th, September 2010


By Ollie Irish

Via Wengerball

Robbie Savage almost lost his cool on BBC Radio 5 Live when defending the sort of ‘They don’t like it up ’em’ football that has made the English Premier League so rife with injuries. He also admitted that when he was a Blackburn Rovers player, then-manager Mark Hughes gave him explicit orders to be physical and cynical. For me, that’s the definition of a manager setting his team out to play anti-football: you STOP the other team (Arsenal, usually)  playing, which is very different from beating your opponent by playing BETTER than them. Of course, Hughes is hardly the first manager to do this (but you think he might have learned a different, more positive game under Fergie at Man Utd), but it’s depressing that the same old team talk is still being parroted in dressing rooms up and down the country. Get stuck in, lads. Rattle them early doors. Let them know you’re there. Take no prisoners. Stop them playing.

With such a negative mindset so widespread in British football, no wonder the Home Nations fail at international level; anti-football will only get you so far, unless you learn to conceal such play, as the Italians – arguably the most cynical and defensive-minded football nation there is – have done for years with considerable success. Us Brits like to play dirty too, especially when we see foreigners flaunting their superior skill on our pitches (the nerve!), but because we’re still a nation obsessed with fair play and being ‘jolly good sports’ (a hangover from the World Wars, partly), we’re not very good at getting away with it.

Do you think Savage is simply being realistic – cynical play is ‘part and parcel’ of football – or is it people like him who ruin the game?

Posted in Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Featured

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  1. Dan Clough says:

    Of course he’s right. If Blackburn go out and try to play football against sides with vastly superior transfer kittys/wage bills they’ll get hammered. Then they’ll get relegated. You have to do what you can to combat the opposition’s strengths. Why that isn’t considered part of the game I’ll never know. Teams have always done it.

  2. babo says:

    its part and parcel of football. i’m a rovers fan, and its a nightmare having to watch some of the dross we have to put up with, but we also realise that we have neither the players or the budget to compete with teams like arsenal on a level playing field. thats why fat sam had the first team training on the pitch at ewood – to rough it up a bit. and savage was fantastic at rovers. tough and cynical, but could also play a bit when needed.

  3. Ollie Irish says:

    Sorry Dan & Babo, I know you’re only siding with your team, but you’re wrong. The whole ‘level playing field argument’ is a convenient smokescreen used by cautious teams with no wit and imagination – why not play proper football, the way it should be played? The more you do it, the better you get at it; you might take the odd hammering off Arsenal, but you’d be 1) better-equipped to beat the teams around you, 2) better to watch, and 3) you might just move up the table, and thereby encourage better players to join. Stop parroting what you hear on Talksport and Sky, you’re better than that.

  4. Joe says:

    Utter nonsense from a player who never had the skill to do otherwise. Football is both a sport and entertainment.

    Punters pay a lot of money to watch, either from the stands or from their sitting rooms.

    They deserve to see something a little better than players trying to beat quality with thuggery.

  5. Chappers says:

    Clough and Babo//

    That´s a poor excuse really. Fulham played as well as UTD at Craven and they didn´t need to cynically kick the UTD players off the park. Career-threatening injuries should never be accepted as a means to bridge the gap against better sides. You can be defensively resilient, tough without going in studs showing knee-high like Robinson against Diaby, Davies against Rosicky and Wilshere or Cahill against Chamakh. That´s three players committing 4 dangerous tackles in one game!!

    Blackburn, Bolton and especially Stoke will never be aspiring to be better if they have such a view of what the game is meant to be played. I´m not suggesting sides like Blackburn can´t have a defensive-minded, resilient approach against the top 4, but to suggest it´s ok for the Arsenal players to fear for their careers due to worse sides feeling it´s within their right to kick them and potentially injure them, is beyond belief.

    It´s pretty sad that it´s ok to break someones leg in football, but if it happened in real life, the consequences would be a hell of a lot mlore severe than 3 games on the sidelines.

  6. Ollie Irish says:

    @ Chappers – Hear hear.

  7. babo says:

    Ollie – who are you or any other commentator to say what way “football should be played”? There is more than one way to skin a cat! have you read jonathan wilsons “inverting the pyramid”? it talks about the history of football tactics, and there really is no suggestion that football “should” be played in the “arsenal way”.

    look at west brom. they try and play nice pretty football, and get sent packing every year – the classic yoyo club!

    and nobody is saying that it is ok to go out to try and hurt the opposition. look at manchester united – roy keene has said himself that he hurt alfe-inge haaland on purpose, look at what cantona did, rooney is a nasty player, scholes apparently has a nasty streak, but nobody is saying that Manchester united are “anti -football!”

    its a severe over simplification to say that clubs like rovers, bolton and stoke play “anti-football”. its just a pragmatic football.

    (and one, which i hasten to add, i personally despise as much as you guys apparently do. its just i can see the benefits and unfortunate need for it!)

  8. Gav says:

    In my opinion Arsenal are one of the most cynical, snide teams out there. There team don’t do the hard 50/50 tackles of other teams, thats why Wenger moans. Some of their players are petulant little kids, are Arsenal fans so forgetful that they cant remember the likes of Adams, Keown and Vieira. These kind of players had the win at all costs attitude that made them win 50/50 tackles and they didnt mind pulling shirts – exactly the kind of players they need now!

    They need to channel their aggression much more intelligently rather than being snide or moaning to the ref. They really need a backbone, not another mediocre french centre half. Rant over

  9. syndex says:

    Look at what chelsea have done to west brom, wigan, stoke and west ham, if the team is technically better than yours you will need to get stuck into them. having been on the recieving side of it this year as an everton fan from blackburn and wolves already this season it is irritating but we will be returning the favour against arsenal, chelsea and liverpool (man utd we alway fancy our chances if you press them across the midfield and attack evra), and I think we will probably pick up a few points off them.

  10. R-Hops says:

    Football teams do what they can to get points. Teams like Blackburn aren’t guaranteed to outplay the likes of Arsenal. Deliberately seeting out to foul or injure an opponent is obviously wrong, that type of cynicism has no place in the game. But playing ugly football, getting stuck in and making hard but fair challenges is absolutely fine. Everyone loves to see a massive (but clean) tackle in a match, it happens to create a hostile and uncomfortable atmosphere which the bigger clubs dont like, giving the other ‘bully’ clubs are chance to sneak some unexpected points.

  11. George says:

    I think there’s a fine line between trying to beat Arsenal by playing ‘Anti-Football’ and trying to beat Arsenal by playing extremely physically to expose their weaknesses. From last season, I remember Chelsea completely destroying Arsenal simply by being so much stronger and tougher. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and I don’t think a technically fantastic team like Arsenal play a style of football that’s anyway superior to a much more physical Chelsea side.

  12. Wxm says:

    There is a difference between 50-50 challenge or going out to hurt the other team . Teams like Blackburn Bolton Stoke etc are trying to take the easy way out . i would like to see their fans praising this style if someone breaks Pederson , Davies or Shawcross’s leg.

  13. dan-wafc says:

    It’s every team’s prerogative to play the way they wish – but if you attempt to play the better sides at their own game you don’t have to be annihilated. Wigan managed it three times last year, beating Chelsea, Liverpool and then Arsenal without resorting to the hoofball tactics of old. It can work, but it’s much riskier than the ‘old-fashioned’ tactics that the likes of Blackburn and Bolton used to employ – just look at what resulted when we tried to do the same to Man Utd, two 5-0 thrashings.

  14. Tinez says:

    Sort of an irrelevancy given that Blackburn tried this against Arsenal and lost. As for it being rife in British football, no one does this kind of thing to Chelsea, Man United, Spurs etc because they love it up them and love to put it back up their foe.

  15. QueerAsFuß says:

    Winning’s not all that makes me love my club Schalke. We haven’t won the shield in 52 seasons after all- and we have won nothing: not friendlies, not CL, not Deutsch Bundesliga, nothing this year so far. A wonderfully Schalketastic start to the year.
    We’re know for a gliding style of pass and it’s a beautiful thing to watch when it works. Don’t get me wrong I love seeing a fabulous tor- but I also love to see skill and sportsmanship. When another player reaches down after a fair tackle to help his marked man up, when defender sneaks away an attackers ball with ninja like reflexes, when an attacker does a fabulous nutmeg, etc. I like those great little football moments just as much as earning the 3 points. Maybe that’s being less of a supporter than caring only for the win but I just love to see my club get out and play.
    I’m glad that in Bundesliga we play rough but it tends not to be vindictively. I think the fact that refs have so much time to angst over little shirt tugs is proof we don’t see a lot of ugly stuf on the pitch.
    The ‘enforcers’ sent out as a bully player just to take out the other team’s best scorers are one of the things that ruins hockey for me. Even as someone in Canada surronded by hockey love. I guess makes me a pansy(though I do like boxing- just not when I’m watching another sport :P) but I just hate to see ‘kicking the shit out of their best players’ as a tactic. If being the best on the pitch(or ice) makes you an automatic target for purposeful injury you’re better off just being a tick above average. Otherwise you’ll be a brilliant player who spends all his time out hurt instead of being an above avaerage player who gets to log 90 mins week after week. I find that a disappointing trend for a sport to follow.
    And I don’t understand how ‘stopping a player from playing’ is defended as tactics. I read the comments here and I udnerstand what’s being said but isn’t that what honest defense is for? Fair tackles can result in injury but they aren’t intended to injure or take send a player off onto the stretcher. That’s the difference between fair play and being an arse, right? Or am I way off in my thinking? I just can’t reconcile using the tackle as a vehicle to break an ankle or bruise a knee because the other team can afford a ‘better’ striker instead of to gain possesion or interrupt a play allowable use of a defender’s allowed tool kit of moves. You can’t just change the rules because you don’t like loosing- unless your 9 years old and own the ball. Than you can.

    Now I don’t mean to say we have a thug free utopia in Bundesliga but I think we have less tolerance for out right rule breaking. We don’t shrug and say ‘that’s fußball’ because we have not allowed that to become fußball.

    I actually drifted away from watching most EPL in the past few years- I still always try to catch Arsenal in Champions League but my passion for EPL has faded. I never conciously blamed the escalating and seemingly tolerated cold heartedness in challenges but I’m sure that was a factor in what made the Premiership leave a bad taste in my mouth. I know the EPL wont be crying over one lost fan but I think it’s a situation that will continue to get worse and there comes a point where big salary versus probibility of career ending injury stops tipping over to the big salary side.

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