Hector Bellerin and the Arsenal Fan TV fiasco

Over the past couple of days, there has been widespread attention across social media regarding comments made by Hector Bellerin about Arsenal Fan TV during a speech he gave at the Oxford Union last month. Although I am not an Arsenal supporter, I was fortunate enough to be there in person at the talk, so I thought I would share some thoughts on the reaction which has seen Bellerin come in for a hefty amount of criticism in recent days (much of which has come from those involved with the AFTV channel).

For those not aware, the Oxford Union is a debating society which invites speakers from all kinds of different backgrounds to either take part in a debate (usually political), or to give a talk about their career and personal interests, as Bellerin did. The Union is separate from the University of Oxford, although the vast majority of its membership is from the university.

There have been many high-profile football speakers in recent years, including Rio Ferdinand, Clarence Seedorf, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Saar. Bellerin is unusual in this context, in that it is very rare for a current professional footballer to speak at these events- most likely because any vaguely controversial opinions they might share will quickly be pounced upon and plastered all over the internet, as has happened with Bellerin over the past week.

It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that a scheduled talk by Mesut Özil this month has recently been cancelled. The reason for the cancellation has not been made public, but it seems likely that it may well be in response to the recent reaction to Bellerin’s visit. Özil is an even higher-profile figure than Bellerin and it is easy to imagine the fallout should he have made any controversial comments of note.

The majority of the time, when interviewed in the public domain- such as the post-match interviews on Sky Sports and BT Sports- players are well versed in delivering bland, pre-programmed responses such that they will avoid criticism and scrutiny around their choice of words. Very rarely will a player offer their own in-depth opinions or analysis after a game, as they will be trained to deliver the usual platitudes such as “we’ll have to work on this in training next week”, “I’m happy to have scored, but the team’s victory comes first”, or “we just take each game as it comes” etc.

Talks at the Oxford Union, by contrast, offer a platform for footballers to speak openly about a range of issues to an audience of several hundred young people, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. They will be asked a series of questions in an interview format to begin with, ranging from their experiences within the sport, to more general issues beyond the footballing sphere, before audience members are invited to ask their own questions.

When Bellerin was asked about his opinions on Arsenal Fan TV, this was a question raised by an audience member, to which he responded that he feels it is “really wrong” for an enterprise to be profiting from the club’s failures, thus questioning whether such people can really claim to be fans.

He also went on to say that people are perfectly entitled to make money as they wish, and that he only values criticism coming from his coaches, but that he is aware of the highly reactionary and often highly critical nature of Arsenal Fan TV.

The first thing to say, is that Bellerin is correct in a sense. Arsenal Fan TV does attract the majority of its viewership when Arsenal lose. Fans from other clubs will quickly flock to watch the videos every time Arsenal suffer a poor result to watch a variety of notorious figures vent their frustrations, often in an amusing manner, in front of a camera.

Arsenal Fan TV does also make money from this, of course, although the vast majority of contributors are not paid to speak on the videos. It is a platform which allows fans to have a voice as an alternative to mainstream media, and is inherently more emotive and strongly opinionated than traditional forms of football coverage.

Where I, and many others, disagree with Bellerin, is when he suggests it’s difficult to call someone a fan if they partake in such a platform which benefits financially when Arsenal underperform. Those who appear on Arsenal Fan TV- and other fan TV channels- are, for the most part, loyal and committed supporters who are fully entitled to give their opinion on the club to which they devote so much time and money.

Arsenal Fan TV also features heavy praise for players and their performances when the team wins, of course.

Bellerin, however, is entitled to give his own opinion in the same way that fans can openly and heavily criticise his performances. From his perspective, as a professional footballer, he is far less likely to be made aware of clips when supporters praise him and the team, than he is when he performs poorly and the team loses.

His view, therefore, is not fully informed and is heavily shaped by the negative side of Arsenal Fan TV and he most likely sees it purely as a source of wild, over-reactive criticism and even abuse, which he admitted he will often be sent clips of after a bad performance.

What I find most interesting and disappointing, though, is the manner in which a small comment he made as part of a 40-minute talk, is seized upon in a way which brands him as rude, disrespectful and detached from supporters. Throughout his talk, Bellerin covered a whole range of topics, ranging from mental health (i.e. how difficult would it be for a high-profile professional footballer to reveal they suffered from depression), a discussion of racism in football (with reference to the abuse suffered by Liverpool youngster, Rhian Brewster, with whom he shares an agency), his charity work (including raising funds for the victims of the Grenfell disaster) and the Catalan independence movement.

He came across as a thoroughly intelligent and well-spoken individual who clearly has an enormous amount of humilty and awareness of his fortunate position in society, speaking with honesty and intellect about topics far beyond his own career in the game.

I was also able to meet Bellerin in person before the talk, and he was both thoroughly engaged and laid back- a very easy person to get along with and not remotely pretentious or disinterested, as some footballers can come across.

I asked him about his toughest opponents in the Premier League this season (Richarlison was his answer), his thoughts on Spain’s chances in the World Cup (he said to keep an eye out for Isco as the key player of the new generation) and his experience of facing Mo Salah twice this season, to which he emphatically stated that the Egyptian is the signing of the season.

It is reflective of a wider scepticism towards footballers in general- often characterised as greedy and detached from supporters- that Bellerin has been the target of such criticism for what was a tiny proportion of his talk, while the rest- some of which was thoroughly insightful on some really important issues- is hardly even touched upon and discarded as irrelevant, while fans project their anger in his direction, ignoring the entirety of the wider context in which he delivered such comments (which, ultimately, was just an honest opinion for which he was asked to give).

 

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Match review

It’s often difficult to judge Portuguese teams in the Champions League. Based on their domestic form- top of the league and unbeaten at home, having conceded just 10 goals in 21 matches, Porto appeared to be potentially tricky opponents on paper, albeit a favorable draw for Liverpool.

What unfolded on the soaking wet grass, however, was a complete and utter non-contest, in which Liverpool, in their fluorescent tangerine kit, delivered one of the finest all-round Champions League performances from an English side in years. Indeed, this was one of the most accomplished displays of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure as Liverpool systematically and ruthlessly dismantled the hosts in an almost nonchalant manner.

The opening stages were somewhat evenly contested, with Porto showing some delicate touches on the ball- particularly through Yacine Brahimi, by far the most likely threat down the left-wing. Yet Liverpool had a confidence and assurance about themselves in possession- disciplined, yet fully capable of unleashing their devastating attacking weapons at any moment.

When the opening goal arrived 25 minutes in after Jose Sa fumbled Sadio Mané’s shot over the line following a driving forward run by Gini Wijnaldum, it felt as though it had been coming as Liverpool increasingly asserted their superiority across all areas of the pitch.

Mo Salah doubled the scoring just four minutes later, following in James Milner’s superb curling effort which crashed off the post, the Egyptian demonstrating the class and composure of a player brimming with confidence, safe in the knowledge he is right up there with the very best footballers on the planet at this moment in time.

Salah, juggling the ball over the keeper’s head, was always fully in control as he stabbed the ball over the line for his 30th goal of the season- a simply remarkable turn, all the more so by reaching the landmark by mid-February. He now needs just seven more goals to become Liverpool’s record goalscorer in a single season in the Premier League era, as he closes in on Robbie Fowler’s career-high tally of 36.

While Liverpool’s game management has left much to desire on several occasions when leading games this season, Klopp’s team never let up, working tirelessly off the ball, particularly through the pressing of the ever-industrious Roberto Firmino and the midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner who controlled the midfield to great effect throughout.

The third goal, arriving eight minutes into the second-half, was vintage Klopp football at its finest, with Firmino starting off a rapid counter-attack with a neat flick, before latching on to Salah’s perfectly weighted through ball, as an onrushing Mané anticipated the rebound from the Brazilian’s shot to tap in from close range.

Mané is a player who has been lacking in confidence for some time now, influencing games while not being anywhere near his peak level- his first touch and decision-making strangely lacking, in comparison to the virtually unplayable figure of last season. He needed a big statement performance, and this was the perfect way to do so, securing his hat-trick with a vicious drive from outside the penalty area for Liverpool’s fifth on the night, after Firmino had converted from close range after excellent work by Milner down the left.

It was a stunning demonstration of ruthless counter-attacking football, combined with total domination in every department. While scoring five goals away from home in a European knockout tie is an extraordinary feat in itself, the imperious defensive performances by Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren were just as impressive, as the duo ensured Porto’s albeit limited threat was contained in order to preserve a valuable clean sheet.

The Dutchman, in particular, not only showed his aerial prowess on countless occasions, but also his ability to play an integral role in Liverpool’s build-up play from a deeper position, spraying several excellent long, diagonal balls out wide to switch play quickly and accurately, thus creating gap’s in Porto’s shape to be exploited.

Andy Robertson, too, deserves enormous credit for another masterful performance at left-back, with the Scot increasingly looking like one of the best bargains Liverpool have discovered in years, combining defensive nous with boundless energy and consistently dangerous delivery from out wide in advanced areas.

While there is never any room for complacency in this competition, Liverpool have put themselves into the best possible position heading into the second-leg at Anfield where they will be fully expected to seal their passage through to the quarter-finals with minimum fuss.

This latest resounding victory- following the two 7-0 drubbings of Maribor and Spartak Moscow in the group stages- is yet another statement to Europe’s elite that Liverpool, when they click, are a force to be reckoned with in this competition.

Tougher tests will come, of course, barring a miracle from Porto in the return leg, but as the highest scorers in the competition, overtaking PSG this evening, no team will relish coming up against Liverpool in this vein of form.

 

 

 

 

Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Match review

For all the many valid points of praise and criticism one might level at this Liverpool side, there is never, ever a dull moment. It might not be good for the heart, but it makes for a genuinely pulsating spectacle on a regular basis. Their propensity for the ridiculous is unrivaled across the Premier League.

While the previous fixture at Wembley back in October saw Liverpool taken to pieces by a rampant Spurs side, coursing with confidence, Jürgen Klopp and his team have improved immeasurably since, embarking on an 18-match unbeaten run which only recently came to an end following the shock defeat against Swansea.

Having recovered well with a comfortable 3-0 win against Huddersfield in midweek, Liverpool came flying out the traps against Spurs, taking the lead inside three minutes as Mo Salah pounced on an undercooked backpass by Eric Dier, slotting the finish coolly past Hugo Lloris for his 27th goal of the season- making the Egyptian the fastest ever Liverpool player to reach 20 Premier League goals, reaching the landmark in 25 games, overtaking the previous record held jointly by Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres (both 27 games).

Liverpool continued to press and harry Spurs into submission throughout the opening 45 minutes, constantly forcing mistakes and asserting their superiority. The final pass, however, was lacking, and the prevailing sense was one of a missed opportunity when the scoreline was still a slender 1-0 lead heading into the break.

To their credit, Spurs were a team transformed in the second-half, as Liverpool appeared lethargic and lacking in intensity as the visitors increasingly cranked up the pressure. There was no route out for Liverpool as Roberto Firmino was unable to sustain his usual energetic defending from the front, while the gaps in the Liverpool midfield grew ever wider and more frequent.

In a bid to halt the shift in momentum, Klopp made two proactive changes in replacing Jordan Henderson (impressive, but only recently returning from injury) and Sadio Mané, with fresh legs in the form of Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The double change had scant effect on proceedings, however, as Spurs continued to probe in search of the equalizer.

It felt increasingly likely that Liverpool would eventually succumb to the immense pressure they found themselves under, having sat back so passively for the duration of the second-half, allowing Spurs to assert themselves in a manner they weren’t able to in the first-half.

Loris Karius made a superb intervention to deny Heung-Min Son from close range, but the tide eventually could not be held back any longer. The eventual equalizer came not from a carefully carved-out opportunity, but from a 25-yard piledriver from an unlikely source in the substitute, Victor Wanyama, who gave Karius no chance with the thunderous power behind his strike.

Although Karius might have done better to clear the ball with his initial punch from Christian Eriksen’s cross, sometimes one has to simply take their hat off to a truly phenomenal hit- a one in a hundred kind of strike from a player very rarely on the scoresheet.

Seizing the initiative, Spurs continued to pour forwards, this time in search of a winner, as the most chaotic of finales ensued. With three minutes of normal time left to play, Dele Alli slid Harry Kane through on goal, with the ball taking a slight deflection off Dejan Lovren on its way through. Kane made the very most of the opportunity, falling to the ground after the faintest of brushes with Loris Karius, with the striker making sure to initiate the contact

John Moss, the referee, awarded the penalty before consulting his linesman who appeared to point out Kane had been offside. Confusion over the offside rule seemed to preoccupy the pair in discussion, apparently unclear as to whether Lovren’s diversion should have altered the decision. Regardless, Moss was unchanged by the linesman’s comments, standing by his decision.

Kane, one goal short of a century in the Premier League, blasted the ball straight down the middle- a tactic which usually works against most keepers, who either dive to their left or right, rarely remaining central. Karius, however, stood his ground and parried the ball away, as Erik Lamela ballooned the rebound high and wide.

It was an excellent stop by the German who enjoyed arguably the finest performance of his erratic Liverpool career thus far, only enhancing his reputation after having been installed as Klopp’s new number one.

It appeared as though Liverpool had just about done enough to cling on for the draw, but this was only the beginning of a remarkable passage of play in which Liverpool managed to snatch what looked to be a sensational winner, only to relinquish their lead once more in the dying seconds.

Salah, jinking past four Spurs defenders before stabbing the finish high into the roof of the net, delivered a goal of the very highest order- the kind Lionel Messi would be proud of. It deserved to be the winner and it is an enormous shame that such a moment of sheer genius would be overshadowed by what followed.

Just as Liverpool appeared to have secured the three points in stoppage time, Virgil van Dijk- imperious in his all-round performance- dangled a leg in front of Erik Lamela inside the penalty area. It wasn’t the wisest of moves by the Dutchman, although any contact was minimal and the Argentine had no interest in the ball whatsoever, theatrically flinging himself to the ground.

The referee, stood several yards away, was not interested in any penalty claims, only for play to continue for another few seconds before the linesman called the referee’s attention. After another lengthy conversation, the referee this time decided to change his mind based on the linesman’s judgment (who had been stationed much further away from the incident) and overturn his original decision, awarding Spurs a penalty in the 95th minute.

For all the talk of VAR taking too long and breaking up the flow of the game, the referee and his linesman spent an excessive amount of time discussing both penalty incidents on this occasion, both of which were highly dubious to say the very least. Surely, given the technology is available, it would only be sensible for the incidents to be reviewed on a screen so that the correct decisions could be made more often than not, rather than the guesswork which appeared to be at play on this occasion.

This time, Kane made no mistake from the spot as he hit his 100th Premier League goal to snatch a point from Liverpool’s grasp right at the death.

Liverpool could feel hard done by regarding the officials, although the two penalty decisions should not obscure the fact that Spurs were much the stronger side in the second-half as Liverpool failed to manage the game effectively while in front, on two occasions.

On the balance of play, a draw is probably just about the right result, but to save a late penalty and score a stoppage-time goal to go 2-1 in front, only to surrender the victory with barely seconds left on the clock is nonetheless a difficult blow to stomach.

The draw leaves Liverpool still in control of their own destiny and on the face of it, it’s a fairly decent result against a very good side. The manner in which events unfolded, however, means it feels more like a defeat, as Salah’s solo stunner ought to have opened up a much-needed five-point cushion.

As has proven the case on numerous occasions this season, Liverpool couldn’t quite haul themselves over the finish line, and the quest to finish inside the top four for a second consecutive season looks set to be another almighty tussle.