Following Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Liverpool last weekend, there were criticisms of some of Mauricio Pochettino’s players and their tendency to dive.
Dele Alli picked up his third booking for simulation since 2016, while there were question marks over Harry Kane when he fell into the onrushing Loris Karius to win his side a penalty late on. You can understand a manager wanting to defend and protect his players, but the Argentine’s comments ahead of the North London derby might be considered injudicious at beast.
“Football is about trying to trick your opponent,” he said, which is true if you’re using skill rather than gamesmanship, otherwise players who dive are trying to trick the referee.
And the idea that the Spurs players might be trying to trick him could well be on referee Anthony Taylor’s mind if he has any decisions to make in that regard when they host Arsenal meet at Wembley on Saturday.
The Gunners are a team that, over the last couple of years, have a tendency to concede a lot of penalties. Six have been awarded against them this season — and six have been scored — on top of 16 last season, of which 14 were scored.
Perhaps that was on Arsene Wenger’s mind when Pochettino’s comments about diving were put to him at his news conference on Thursday. Clearly sensing the Spurs manager had left the door open, the Frenchman said: “I remember there were tremendous cases here when foreign players did it, but I must say the English players have learned very quickly and they might even be the masters now.”
He didn’t name any names, nor did he criticise the two Tottenham players at whom fingers were pointed last week, but if he had a chance to sow further doubt in the minds of the officials it’s obvious he wasn’t going to pass it up.
Any little thing you can do to tip the derby odds in your favour, you need to do it. Wenger is wise enough to know an opportunity when he sees one — not least because he knows his team’s record away from home this season is well below par.
From 13 games Arsenal have earned just 13 points, losing six times, and often to teams they would be expected to beat. It’s true that the Premier League has become more competitive, but losing to Stoke, Bournemouth, Watford and Swansea is a real blemish on their record. Especially because you could consider all those losses self-inflicted, as Wenger’s men shot themselves in both feet. They dropped points because of individual errors and collective performances that were not up to scratch.
Formation issues are secondary, but it would be a surprise not to see Wenger revert to a back three at Wembley on Saturday. One of Arsenal’s best performances of the season was the 2-0 win at home over Spurs — the most accomplished the side have looked with that system since what was then a radical formation change last April.
The influx of attacking talent in the shape of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang means that Arsenal will play with a back four more often, particularly at home, but their personnel weaknesses at centre-back and the lack of a true defensive midfielder mean that the solution for away games is the back three.
It is a question of balance but Wenger knows his team are in a position where every point is critical as they try and make up the gap to the top four. He more or less rejected the idea that this was a “must not lose” game, saying that they wanted to win it, and with a six-point gap to the Champions League places you can understand why.
Last week, with a 5-1 over Everton, and with a back four, the Arsenal manager showed he has a potentially exciting and refreshed attack ready to take on all-comers in the last third of the season. On Saturday, he has to get them to repeat that with a different formation and away from home.
Whether than can do that remains to be seen, but despite their inconsistency there’s unquestionably more adaptability to the team. And that might just make the difference.