A lot has been said and written this season about the more tolerant approach being taken by Premier League referees.
For the most part, there is bemusement that PGMOL – the refereeing body that runs the show in the English game – has decided, apparently arbitrarily, to start letting incidents that might have been fouls in previous years go unpunished.
And not just unpunished, some challenges we have started to see scarcely even warrant a free-kick, let alone anything seriously punitive.
I think we can all understand why PGMOL were keen to introduce a change of some kind after being thoroughly embarrassed by the standard of officiating on display at the European Championships in the summer but why they have chosen to take the game backwards a decade is anyone’s guess.
While I do agree that the level of gamesmanship and outright theatrics had reached something of a zenith in the league, we were at least in a place where we understood what constituted a foul. All of that has now been done away with.
If PGMOL really wanted to preserve fluidity of the game, it might have looked at working on its appalling implementation of VAR, which had served only to make the game a sideshow, but, alas, it settled on a re-imagining of 1990s football thuggery instead.
And that brings me in a very roundabout way to this weekend’s Burnley versus Arsenal match. We have already seen Burnley begin to push the boundaries of this new tolerant orthodoxy and I can’t help but feel they will continue to do just that on Saturday.
It’s no secret that Burnley rely heavily on the physical side of the game to gain an advantage and managers have long bemoaned the sort of treatment reserved for them by Sean Dyche’s side. Now, emboldened by an official sanctioning of their tactics, how far will we see them push it?
That’s the proposition Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal side must be wary of and wise to this weekend. Dyche would doubtless have noted the sort of impact Brentford made with their roughhousing of a young Arsenal team and his side are bigger, uglier and much longer in the tooth than their newly-promoted counterparts.
If this fairly callow Arsenal side is not to be bullied and cajouled out of contention on Saturday they must be prepared to stand up to 90 minutes of long balls and big tackles. If they are not primed for it, they will be overawed by it – of that you can be certain.
That’s not to say that our own principles need be abandoned in favour of Allardyce-ball 2.0 – rather that we go into this match with our eyes open. It should come as no surprise to anyone in the squad that Burnley will turn up for this one looking to hit hard and hit early and we can’t rely on the referee for protection or what we would even consider fair implementation of the rules.
Unlike the Norwich match last weekend, I don’t think we will have this one all our own way but, like the Norwich match, coming away with three points will be crucial. Arteta’s men must stand up and be counted or they face sinking without trace, as they did at Brentford.