It’s common knowledge that every fan thinks it’s their own club the refs are biased against. Very few fans believe in conspiracy theories…unless their club is the target of the conspiracy. However, when it comes to Bukayo Saka, we have more than cognitive dissonance, more than confirmation bias, more than corrupt incompetence (or was it incompetent corruption?). We have ample evidence of the objective variety that there’s something wrong with how he’s being treated by opposing players and by referees. It’s getting to the worrisome point that he may have to suffer some kind of injury before those referees take off the blinders and start holding those players accountable.
We at the Arsenal know a thing or two or three about what happens when physical crosses the line. Given the sheer number of times Saka gets fouled, it feels like only a matter of time before he suffers actual injury from it. It’s become a regular sight to see Saka trying to take on one (or, more often, two) defenders who resort to fouling him cynically once he quickly and thoroughly and repeatedly makes it clear that they don’t have the minerals to stop him. If it were just the parked busses and packed box-type teams that were hacking at his ankles and yanking at his jersey at just about every turn, we could see it as a compensation for the gap in quality. However, as we saw just two weeks ago, the most-expensive squad in the world had its left back tugging and kicking at and bruising Saka. Just one yellow card after the second or third foul rather than after the fourth or fifth doen’t seem like too much to ask.
When it’s the same player committing the fouls, as it was with Bernardo Silva, the argument for a booking is pretty clear. When it’s the same player getting fouled, the argument is somewhat less clear but still pretty compelling. If a team is targeting one opponent—as so frequently seems to happen to Saka—it is still incumbent to protect the player, to uphold the rules, and to issue consquences. Just how far short is this group of referees falling from clearing that very low bar (I think that mixed metaphor works…). Let’s look at that ample evidence of the objective variety that I mentioned earlier.
Saka has been fouled—excuse me—refs have seen hit to whistle forty fouls on Saka, a meagre fraction of the actual total. Players who have fouled Saka have been cautioned just four times or once for every ten fouls. Other players in a similar situation enjoy somewhat better protection; I’ll leave it up to each man’s fans to decide whether it’s adequate. Zaha’s assailants have seen nine cards from 57 fouls (one card for every 6.3 fouls). Grealish’s have seen ten cards from 49 fouls (one card for every 4.9 fouls). Grealish, of course, is expert at trailing a leg after he’s gone past a defender to cause the kind of contact that looks like a foul.
|Maybe Manchester has a ref academy?|
Grealish is one of the masters of causing that kind of contact, and this might be a factor in the levels of protection he enjoys. If I may be so bold, I’d like to offer another possible factor that does start to sound a bit conspiratorial. Of all of the refs in the Prem, not one is from London despite there being seven London teams in the Prem. There are approximately a dozen from the Manchester area if not Manchester itself. All of the referees are middle-class white men. I’m not crying “racism” here, lest you misread me. All I’m saying is that this lack of diversity among referees may allow some of them to suffer from some subconscious (or conscious) against the player if only because of who he plays for and whom they support. We would need far more-damning evidence before considering the possibility that race is a factor. There is some duck-like walking here and there, but I’ll leave it at that.
We have a preternaturally talented player here, a possibly generational player of the sort we’ll be telling our grandkids about. That can only happen though if Saka gets protection, if referees do their job. Perhaps it’s a bit dramatic of me to invoke the grim spectres of what happened to Eduardo, Diaby, and Ramsey, whose injuries were so gruesome that television stations were reluctant to air replays. Even if Saka’s trajectory is closer to, say Jack Wilshere’s, whose glass ankles were shattered innumerable times until the 19 year old who eviscerated Barcelona ended up missing 159 matches in ten years, preventing him ever fully realising that limitless potential for club or four country.
Of course, if it’s only Arteta who’s complaining, the FA and Prem referees have no real incentive to act. Would Gareth Southgate command more attention? Saka is quite close to being England’s best player. If any of you can ring him up and have him put in a good word for our starboy before it’s too late.
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