Arsenal pick up a spate of red cards, bemoan the way they are being treated by the powers that be, time any appeal to best suit their playing needs, and then go on to win yet another trophy. Sound familiar? That is because ill-discipline, as much as success, has become synonymous with the men from Highbury.
Arsenal's disciplinary record during Arsène Wenger's seven-year reign does not make pretty reading. The players know it, the Football Association's video panel know it and, most tellingly, the manager knows it, too. Which begs the question: why does the problem persist?
"Because you don't fix something that isn't broken," is Remi Garde's paradoxical answer. "Some people would argue that lots of bookings and sendings-off are a sign of trouble or weakness, but Arsène only has to point to his double Double to lay that theory to bed."
Garde, who was Wenger's first signing at Arsenal, believes that the manager is deliberately maintaining a "British rawness" to his side. "Arsène always accepted that he would only gain success in England if his team played the English way," says the man who was part of the first Double-winning team of 1998 and is now chief scout at Lyon. "Had Arsène come in and tried to change the fundamentals of the English game, I doubt he would have had the trophies in the cabinet."
Garde might have a point. Arsenal's best seasons during the Wenger era have come when discipline has been at its worst. Witness the Double-winning campaigns of 1997-98 and 2001-02, when the Gunners collected six and 12 reds respectively. Not that dismissals have failed to be anything but a recurring theme every year since Wenger took over. The Frenchman has witnessed 51 sendings-off, by far the poorest record in the Premiership.
Discipline is an issue, but is it a problem? Not so far as Garde is concerned. "Looking at the stats," he says, "it is difficult to make a case against Arsenal and their style of play. Look at the game against Everton [on the opening day of the season]: they went a man down but they still won quite convincingly. Up until now, the Wenger ethos has worked wonders."
Up until now. What happens, though, if Sol Campbell, who was cited for an off- the-ball incident with Eric Djemba-Djemba in the Community Shield and then sent off against Everton, is banned for four matches? And what happens if the team's talisman, Thierry Henry, is punished for his unsportsmanlike celebrations after scoring a penalty last weekend?
Unlike previous years, the squad is considerably smaller than Arsenal's nearest rivals. They can ill-afford to lose key performers. "Frankly, I feel we have improved tremendously," Wenger insists. "A few years ago, we had some problems, but in the last two seasons we have really improved our disciplinary record." Denials and counter-accusations are all part of the Arsenal defensive machine. Blaming opponents for provocation, as Wenger has repeatedly, and the FA for bias, as Patrick Vieira did last week, is par for the course.
Garde believes the provocation charge holds some water, if only because coincidence alone cannot explain Dennis Bergkamp's three dismissals, Vieira's eight or Martin Keown's six. "Some players are targeted because they are vulnerable or, more often, because they are foreign," Garde explains. "The pace of the Premiership is much quicker than any other league, and it takes non-English players a while to adjust." The fact that 28 of the 51 red cards have been given to imports tells its own story.
Another explanation for Arsenal's systematic offending is their style of football. "They play a very high-tempo game," Garde says, "where players squeeze right up and the ball is played very quickly. That sort of football is bound to bring errors, because the margins are so tight. You cannot blame the team for that and you certainly can't call them dirty."
Equally, one cannot point the finger at the FA for sticking to the letter of the law. "We refute any accusations of prejudice against any club," their spokesman insisted, following Vieira's suggestion that Arsenal are being victimised. "Disciplinary rules and regulations are in place across the board and must be adhered to."
Garde, though, warns that any Arsenal defence should be taken with a pinch of salt. "It is common practice to raise the drawbridge and create an 'us-versus-them' mentality when you are in trouble," says a man who has known Wenger for 15 years. "Rallying round and cementing a team bond is part of the reason for Arsenal's tremendous success over the past few years." And the next few, too, one must assume.
Aston Villa v Liverpool
Today, 2.0, Live Sky PPV
The striker Marcus Allback is out with a hamstring strain, so David O'Leary may bring in Peter Crouch to partner Juan Pablo Angel in attack. Olof Mellberg should return to central defence in place of Ronny Johnsen. Gérard Houllier will have Steven Gerrard back from suspension and could give Steve Finnan his first start. Emile Heskey and Vladimir Smicer should overcome injuries.
Middlesbrough v Arsenal
Today, 4.05, Live Sky Sports 1
The arrival of Gaizka Mendieta has lifted the mood at Boro, and additional confidence will not go amiss against a side they often struggle against. Arsenal will be happy to escape without adding to their 51 red cards since Arsène Wenger took over, although they have learned to win with 10 men, as they showed against Everton last week.
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