Welcome to The Briefing, where every Monday during this season, The Athletic will discuss three of the biggest questions to arise from the weekend’s football.
This was the weekend when Crystal Palace fans protested against the direction of their club, Ivan Toney returned to great fanfare, and Jurgen Klopp asked for Mohamed Salah to return to Merseyside.
Here we will ask what actual, significant action is going to be taken against those responsible for two more grimly predictable incidents of racism, who is best placed to challenge Manchester City, and discuss the chaos of the Premier League…
Racism: points penalties and match forfeits required
Kasey Palmer and Mike Maignan don’t have a huge amount in common. Palmer is a good Championship player who will probably play in the top flight one day, but Maignan has won league titles in two different countries and will be in goal for France at this summer’s European Championships. They exist in different footballing spheres.
But this weekend, an abysmal and depressingly predictable set of circumstances brought them together.
Maignan led his AC Milan team-mates off the pitch at Udinese on Saturday after being racially abused twice from the stands. Palmer was racially abused by a Sheffield Wednesday fan towards the end of Coventry City’s 2-1 win at Hillsborough.
Ce n’est pas le joueur qui a été attaqué. C’est l’homme. C’est le père de famille. Ce n’est pas la première fois que ça m’arrive. Et je ne suis pas le premier à qui ça arrive.
On a fait des communiqués, des campagnes de publicité, des protocoles et rien n’a changé.… pic.twitter.com/47tfcW4oNo
— Magic Mike Maignan (@mmseize) January 21, 2024
These are the two latest examples of racial abuse in football, after which the reaction usually follows a similar pattern: there is condemnation, there’s a lot of “racism has no place in football”, the individual perpetrator might get banned or prosecuted, but beyond that, not a huge amount gets done to effect broader change.
That has to stop. The approach from the authorities towards these sorts of clear, inarguable incidents must be stronger. Players must be empowered to walk off if they see fit, as Maignan did.
But there has to be more after that. Racism is structural, not just confined to a few isolated incidents, so the action must be structural, too. To support what Ian Wright said on X, formerly Twitter, points deductions for the offending club must be the next step.
👏🏾👏🏾👏🏾✊🏾 solidarity from the rest of the team. Keep walking off!! We did “playing through it” and nothing has changed. Points deductions needed, the fines are pointless. https://t.co/OzAGL5pDp7
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) January 20, 2024
Journalist Darren Lewis echoed Wright’s calls on Sky Sports on Sunday morning, pointing out that the governors of the game are perfectly happy to issue such punishments for financial misdemeanours, so why not do the same for racism? Their reluctance to do so, at the very least, suggests racism isn’t being taken as seriously as it could be.
In 2024, footballers racially abused should always walk off to protect their mental and emotional well being.
We’ve talked too much about it. The game has prioritised too much above it. And players certainly shouldn’t have to play through it any more.
Clubs get docked points for…
— Darren Lewis (@MirrorDarren) January 20, 2024
Yes, this would mean collectively punishing the players and managers of a team who did nothing wrong. No, in isolation that isn’t fair. But to return to the profit and sustainability example, those punishments are also nothing to do with a lot of the people who may suffer from them.
FIFA’s guidance follows a ‘three-step’ policy: at the first incident of racism, the referee should report it to the ‘home club safety officer via the fourth official’; at the second, the referee may suspend the match ‘allowing the safety officer and police to deal with the perpetrators’; it’s only at the third incident that the referee is empowered to abandon the match.
So, in summary, racists get three goes before anything tangible happens.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s reaction over the weekend sounded good on the face of things and was probably designed to give the impression of toughness and a zero-tolerance attitude, but it ultimately turned out to just be frustrating. “We have to implement an automatic forfeit for the team whose fans have committed racism and caused the match to be abandoned,” he said.
Now it’s time for him to follow up his words with action — FIFA’s three-step plan has been in place since 2017 and has not worked. Racism is society’s problem, not just football’s, but the sport is such a colossal, influential part of society that it has a moral duty to do everything it possibly can to stop it.
Are Liverpool or Arsenal better placed to snatch City’s crown?
This weekend saw two big, convincing wins for the two teams most likely to challenge Manchester City for the title.
Arsenal’s 5-0 victory over Crystal Palace might have looked slightly flattering given the last two goals came after the 93rd minute, but overall it was a demolition. Liverpool’s 4-0 success over Bournemouth was probably more impressive given the Cherries were in such good form before this game.
Those results leave Liverpool top, five points clear of Arsenal, Manchester City and Aston Villa, with City holding a game in hand.
There was a sense after City’s win over Newcastle last weekend, with Kevin De Bruyne returning to the side and Erling Haaland on his way back, that this was the start of their inevitable post-New Year charge, where they will become that merciless winning machine we’ve all seen before and will take their sixth title in the last seven seasons.
However, they have shown significant vulnerabilities this season, which leaves them open to a challenge at least. So which of the two sides who made their multi-goal statements this weekend are better placed to beat City?
It’s probably Liverpool: not just based on this weekend’s performances or recent results, but because they seem able to rotate and to deal without their most potent players.
This was Liverpool’s third game without Mohamed Salah and they will have to get used to it if his hamstring injury sustained at the Africa Cup of Nations makes him unavailable beyond his presence at the tournament. The good news for them is they have now beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup, Fulham in the Carabao Cup and Bournemouth and scored eight goals, seven by their other forwards.
Additionally, it’s worth noting how Liverpool have spread their game time around the squad in comparison to Arsenal. Looking at the total minutes played, Arsenal’s three most-used outfielders all have more game time in their legs than Liverpool’s: William Saliba has played 1,890 minutes, Declan Rice 1,819 and Bukayo Saka 1,758. Then you get to Salah with 1,744, Virgil van Dijk with 1,738 and Dominik Szoboszlai with 1,594.
On a less quantifiable level, you just get the sense that Jurgen Klopp trusts his squad slightly more than Mikel Arteta, who always appears reluctant to leave out more than one of his first-choice attacking quintet. This is not only healthy for Liverpool, from the perspective of winning when a key man is out, but also suggests they will cope with the rigours of the season better.
The counterpoint here is that Liverpool remain in four different competitions while Arsenal only have the Premier League and the Champions League. Klopp will need to make full use of his squad given they face a potential 31 further games this season (which doesn’t include potential FA Cup replays), but on the evidence so far, you would back them to deal with it all pretty well.
Foam fun and five minutes of chaos
Nottingham Forest have written to the Premier League and refereeing head honcho Howard Webb to ask for an explanation as to why Ivan Toney was not prevented from moving both the ball and the foam that referee Darren England had sprayed to indicate the position of the ball as he lined up a Brentford free kick on Saturday.
Hell of a sentence, isn’t it?
Toney scored from that free kick, which is why Forest are so annoyed. It’s clear that although England should obviously have spotted what Toney had done, this was not something that falls under the relatively tight remit of the Video Assistant Referee.
It was an error in the officiating, but it’s impossible not to find the whole thing pretty funny. To repeat: Toney moved the foam. It’s such a ridiculous thing to have happened that you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh, even if you’re a Forest fan.
Then there was the chaos that occurred in the latter stages of Sheffield United vs West Ham on Sunday. West Ham looked like they had a win in the bag after James Ward-Prowse’s 79th-minute penalty, even more so after Rhian Brewster was sent off in the 92nd minute.
But then Vladimir Coufal got his marching orders four minutes later (amusingly for a second booking, the first of which came in the Brewster incident), West Ham conceded a penalty from the resultant free kick, and then nearly five minutes of absolute silliness ensued.
Firstly, James McAtee took the ball, giving the impression he would take it and, with Alphonse Areola receiving lengthy treatment for injuries sustained in conceding the penalty, the pressure appeared to be building. West Ham then took Areola off and his replacement, Lukasz Fabianski, walked onto the pitch so slowly he was nearly moving backwards, presumably hoping to add to the tension.
But wait! The old switcheroo! McAtee then handed the ball to Oli McBurnie, who scored to earn a 2-2 draw. It was four minutes and 27 seconds of absolute nonsense to cap a period of absolute chaos. Or, to put it another way, great fun.
With only four Premier League games this weekend and none of them — on paper at least — potential classics, it was thanks to Toney’s antics and the added time chaos at Bramall Lane that the neutrals had something to keep us entertained. Funny football is often better than good football and we should embrace it.
What’s coming up?
- The buffet of international games for football gluttons continues. Firstly, the relatively prosaic business of the Premier League, as Monday sees this weird two weeks of split fixtures conclude with Brighton hosting Wolves.
- Then, AFCON: the group stage will conclude this week and it could get pretty lively. For starters, on Monday, hosts Ivory Coast need a result against Equatorial Guinea if they are to avoid slinking embarrassingly out of their own tournament. Egypt aren’t guaranteed to progress either and will need something against already-qualified Cape Verde. On Tuesday, Cameroon not only need to beat Gambia but engineer a three-goal swing over Guinea to get through, while on Wednesday, Group E could be great fun, with all four teams still in with a chance of progressing.
- How about the Asian Cup? There isn’t quite the same level of peril, but Japan will have to be careful after their shock defeat to Iraq last week: they play Indonesia on Wednesday and could do with a win to secure their spot in the knockouts. Similarly, South Korea can’t go easy when they face Malaysia, lest Bahrain sneaks ahead of them.
- Want a semi-final? Great news, we have two for you: Middlesbrough take a 1-0 lead into the second leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Tuesday, while on Wednesday, Fulham host Liverpool, the score 2-1 to the visitors in their second leg.
- It’s a big week in the Women’s Champions League as they resume with the fifth game of the group stages and the most eye-catching fixture sees Chelsea host Real Madrid. You’ll be able to watch it free of charge, too, after DAZN announced recently that they were lifting their paywall for all women’s games, including the Champions League.
- And then there’s the men’s FA Cup: the phased fixture policy continues as the fourth round begins on Thursday as Bournemouth host Swansea, then there are four games on Friday night, the biggest being Tottenham against Manchester City.
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(Top photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)
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