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By Tony Attwood
“Arsenal will be hunted this season – being roughed up by Manchester United proved it”
That rather frightening headline appeared in the Athletic this week, and indeed it was the match against Manchester United – supposedly a friendly – that showed that something was seriously wrong.
There were 37 fouls in the match between Manchester United and Arsenal. And in terms of fouling it looked clearly like being one way traffic. Indeed figures after the game revealed by ESPN show that 15 fouls were by Arsenal and 22 by Manchester United.
Of course those figures don’t mean anything by themselves, but if we compare this total of 37 fouls with the norm for Arsenal and Manchester United, and remember this was a friendly – a match to allow American fans to see PL clubs close up, this was truly shocking.
To understand how awful this was we must note that in the Premier League last season Arsenal’s average number of fouls per game was 9.8 per game. Manchester United fouled more, as I think most of us were aware – but not that much more. They committed 11.2 fouls a game on average. So for this match Manchester United doubled their fouling rate while Arsenal’s went up by half.
In a “friendly”.
The first question that comes to mind is “why?” Why did Manchester United double their normal fouling rate for this game?
One reason is that Arsenal now represent a team over whom a victory is something of note. And in the last ten league games between the two Manchester United have only won two. What’s more, Manchester United ended up nine points and a whacking great 30 goals behind Arsenal last season.
But of course such things can’t possibly excuse the fact that the ref blew for 22 Manchester United fouls in the game this week, against 15 by Arsenal – in a friendly where refereeing is normally rather relaxed.
And just to see how awful this was, last season the worst foulers were Leeds with 12.3 fouls per game. Manchester United fouled Arsenal almost twice as much in that game as Leeds did in an average match last season!!! And this with the traditionally relaxed refereeing that friendlies see.
So Arsenal were on the receiving end of 22 fouls in a “friendly”. Yet the most fouled club last season was Aston Villa in 2022/3: an average of 13.1 per game in. The least was Brighton on an average of 7.3. So Arsenal received three times as many fouls in that “friendly” as Brighton got in an average league game last season, in the “toughest league in the world.”
Looking at the game it seemed to me that although one or two Arsenal players fancied giving back as good as the side were getting most were simply trying to avoid getting their legs broken. And indeed it is fair to say that Arsenal were not used to being fouled at this level, and in fact no team in the Premier League is.
Last season Arsenal did get fouled more than Manchester United – the official statistics reproduced by WhoScored show Arsenal being fouled 11.4 times a game, while Manchester United were fouled just 7.8 times per game.
So for Arsenal players to find themselves being fouled twice as often in a friendly game as they were in league games last season must have come as something of a surprise.
What actually kept the match running, and allowed it to finish with 11 players on each side, despite this onslaught of fouls by Manchester United (double their average in the league last season) was Arsenal’s restraint. Yes the number of Arsenal fouls against Manchester United rose in retaliation, but to nothing like the level Manchester United were handing out against Arsenal.
Of course one thing that encouraged Manchester United to tackle and foul more than Arsenal was that they were struggling to get possession – Arsenal had 55% of the ball across the game. Also Manchester United’s shooting was particularly wayward. Only a quarter of their shots were on target while for Arsenal it was half – which was why Manchester United were rather keen to stop Arsenal getting near to shooting positions.
The tragedy of the match was that there were only three yellow cards – two for Manchester United and one for Arsenal. Had the referee been more forthright with his handling of the game from the start, the game might have more closely resembled football.
Sadly I don’t think this display by Manchester United will stop Arsenal being told to play in America pre-season in the future. We can however but hope that the powers that set up these games choose a less dirty team. Leeds United perhaps.
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