Thursday, May 30

Arsenal’s ‘embarrassing’ VAR episode, Hayes’ USWNT switch and ugly chants – The Briefing

Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season The Athletic discusses three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.

This was the weekend when Arsenal stuttered, Manchester United staved off a crisis for another week, Sheffield United got their first win of the season and Luis Diaz displayed astonishing levels of resolve to score Liverpool’s equaliser at Luton Town.

Here we will consider Mikel Arteta and Arsenal’s response to Newcastle’s winner, just how big a deal it is that Emma Hayes is taking the USWNT job and why ‘Always the victim…’ is not harmless terrace banter…


What is the real embarrassment: the refereeing or Arsenal endorsing Arteta’s complaints?

Maybe managers shouldn’t give interviews straight after games.

Frustration is high, emotions heightened, the chance that they might say something unwise goes through the roof.

From that perspective, and in isolation, you can understand (if not agree with) Mikel Arteta’s comments about the refereeing in Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat against Newcastle on Saturday. Anthony Gordon’s winner might have been disallowed on three counts, but there wasn’t conclusive evidence that the ball had gone out, Gordon wasn’t offside and the question of whether Joelinton pushed Gabriel could have gone either way.

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The irritation was understandable. While, in an ideal world, every manager would be absolutely even-handed and calm about every decision that goes against them, it’s unrealistic to expect that all the time.

But anyone who saw Arteta’s comments before watching the incident in question may have been confused when they eventually did see it, expecting a much greater injustice. “I feel embarrassed,” said Arteta, “but I have to be the one now coming here to try to defend the club and please ask for help, because it’s an absolute disgrace that this goal is allowed, an absolute disgrace.”

This was merely a debatable call, not a crushing moment of incompetence that should cause great introspection and resignations at PGMOL, the body which oversees referees in English football. It might have been a mistake, it might not: if nothing else, enough pundits and other neutrals seem to think the officials were correct to suggest it wasn’t a calamitous error. Oddly, Arteta’s reaction may have felt slightly more proportionate if it was about the decision not to send Bruno Guimaraes off for forearming Jorginho in the head, but his ire was focused specifically on the goal.

This is where we are now, though. We have reached the point, with the constant and unending focus on refereeing decisions which has been exacerbated by VAR and its loose promise of perfection, where a manager feels justified in declaring a decision like this as embarrassing and a disgrace. Debatable officiating is now no longer viewed as just that but as part of a wider narrative and sense of collective injustice.

Arteta’s reaction was disproportionate, he probably should know better — particularly after saying only a couple of weeks ago that “we have to understand that mistakes happen” from referees — but again, you can understand it.

There it might have stayed… until Arsenal released an official statement on Sunday afternoon which said:

“Arsenal Football Club wholeheartedly supports Mikel Arteta’s post-match comments after yet more unacceptable refereeing and VAR errors on Saturday evening.”

[VAR debate: Has it made football better or worse? How could it be improved? Have your say in our subscriber survey here]

Presumably, they won’t care about what anyone else thinks, on the basis they have backed their manager and reflected the feelings of many fans. But for a football club to release an ‘official statement’, once upon a time the sort of thing reserved for managerial dismissals and so forth, about a marginal refereeing decision they disagree with, is extraordinary.

You would hope a football club would be more sensible and constructive if, as is referenced later in their statement, their aim is to improve refereeing standards in the league. You would hope that even if we accept that it was a mistake and Gordon’s goal should have been disallowed, that some decisions go against you and everyone should be mature enough to accept that. But they didn’t, and instead officially endorsed their manager’s frustrated outburst.

That’s the embarrassing bit.

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How big a deal is Hayes’s impending appointment as USWNT coach?

English football is going to feel pretty strange without Emma Hayes.

She joined Chelsea in 2012, when the Women’s Super League (WSL) was in just its second season. The WSL, along with the success of the England national team, have been the main drivers in the rise in popularity and recognition for the women’s game in the UK, and Hayes has been a huge part of that.

She has won six WSL titles, including the past four in a row. She has won five FA Cups and the League Cup twice, and in 2020-21 won all three titles in a single season, making that Chelsea team just the second to win a domestic treble. Chelsea were Champions League runners-up that season too, only the second English side and the first since 2007 to reach the final.

Two of the key members of England’s Euro 2022-winning team, Millie Bright and Fran Kirby, have flourished under Hayes at Chelsea. Another two, Jess Carter and Lauren James, helped take Sarina Wiegman’s side to the Women’s World Cup final.

She has also played a role in shaping how the wider public thinks about the game too, with her punditry. She’s frequently one of the most insightful and considered TV analysts and co-commentators, on both the men’s and women’s game.


Hayes’ punditry work has been commended (Robin Jones/Getty Images)

In short, it’s tough to think of a single more influential English figure currently working in the game.

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The USWNT are hiring a serial winner in Emma Hayes – a coach with unfinished business in the U.S.

This is a colossal deal for the U.S. Women’s National Team if, as is very much expected, Hayes is confirmed as their new head coach in the coming days. This is a crucial time of rebuilding after the World Cup, and they have got the best candidate they could have attracted to oversee this new era.

It was probably the only job Hayes would have left Chelsea for. Anyone else in England would have been a step down. Another European club, such as Lyon or Barcelona, might have been worthy of her talents, but the latter in particular wouldn’t suit Hayes’s sense of pragmatism. None of the U.S. domestic sides have the requisite cache. The England job is probably the only other one she could have taken, but Wiegman isn’t going anywhere until 2025 at the earliest.

English football will miss her. The U.S. shouldn’t underestimate what a significant coup her appointment is.


It’s not banter: why ‘Always the victim’ should never be sung at Liverpool fans

The rise of Luton from the non-League to the Premier League has been one of the more heartwarming tales of the past few years. The team have a style which is unpleasant to play against but often exciting to watch and, in Rob Edwards, they have a terrific manager. Kenilworth Road is a charming anachronism among a set of plush, shiny stadiums in the top flight.

In short, their promotion last season was much more interesting than a Norwich City or a West Bromwich Albion or a Watford yo-yo-ing back into the Premier League.

And yet, with the charm and the novelty have come some deeply unpleasant elements in their support. In their first home game, against West Ham United, some of their fans directed an abysmal misogynist chant towards Jarrod Bowen — and another deeply objectionable example appeared in their 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Sunday.

Maybe it was only a vocal minority, but the chant of ‘Always the victim, it’s never your fault’ was clear to hear from the home fans in the second half, followed by a different chant referencing English clubs’ suspension from European football in the 1980s, brought in because of the Heysel tragedy in 1985.

Mercifully, there has been less of this sort of thing of late. The chant was heard at Chelsea on the opening weekend, and a few times towards the back end of last term but, as a general rule, ‘Always the victim…’ hasn’t been quite as frequent as in previous years.

This is in part because fans have become educated about the chant’s connotations, and the Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit Of Shankly has done valuable work in this area.

There will still be some who insist it is merely terrace banter and has no relevance to the Hillsborough disaster and the 97 Liverpool fans who lost their lives as a result of what happened in 1989. But anyone with half a brain or appreciation of modern football history and culture will understand that, whether the person singing consciously intends it this way or not, it is a direct reference to Hillsborough, the most prominent example of when Liverpool fans were victims but were repeatedly told the disaster was their fault.

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You wonder if the people singing it know about its true connotations, that they are just repeating something they have heard in the name of standard rivalry between opposing fans, that they think it is just the same as any other chant. They may well just be ignorant or naive kids who weren’t alive in 1989, much less aware of the context.

But that is even more reason to call out the chant as unacceptable when it happens, as Jamie Carragher did so well while commentating for Sky Sports.

Rivalry, antipathy, even verbal aggression between different sets of fans should be encouraged. Some of the best atmospheres you will ever experience will be informed by an element of spite, that it’s not just ‘us’ winning but ‘them’ losing too. It’s part of what makes football enjoyable.

But those who join in with this chant should be aware that, in doing so, they are contributing to the continued demonisation of Liverpool fans and belittling a 34-year struggle which continues to this day.


Coming up

  • Arguably the biggest game of this Premier League weekend comes on Monday, as Ange Postecoglou’s Tottenham take the only remaining unbeaten record in the Premier League to face Chelsea. They will go back to the top with a win, while three points for Chelsea could just about sneak them into the top half of the table.
  • Then it’s the Champions League, with these fixtures the reverse of the round of games we saw last week: Newcastle take their depleted contingent to face Borussia Dortmund, who beat them in Newcastle but have since been taken to the cleaners by Harry Kane, while Manchester City should theoretically make short work of Young Boys.
  • On Wednesday, Arsenal and their burning sense of injustice host Sevilla, while Manchester United continue their (often unsuccessful) quest not to embarrass their supporters too much, as they travel to face FC Copenhagen.
  • Thursday sees the Europa League return to our collective consciousness and Brighton take a trip to Amsterdam, where they will face an Ajax side who have actually managed to win a couple of games since they last faced each other, while West Ham are at home to Olympiacos and Liverpool travel to Toulouse. In the Conference League, Aston Villa host AZ Alkmaar.
  • Thursday also sees Gareth Southgate announce his latest England squad, for the Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia. Will Anthony Gordon get the nod? Will James Ward-Prowse continue to be ignored? Are people just going to bore on about Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Henderson being called up again?

(Top photo: Getty Images)