FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
Some footballers get sent off. Some footballers get sent off a lot. But nobody gets sent off quite like Granit Xhaka, a walking paradox, a walking-off-to-the-showers paradox. How can something be so surprising and yet so inevitable? How can one man be completely of-course, but at the same time totally how-the-hell.
Xhaka gives late Christmas gift to Arsenal fan after Wolves game was cancelled
Genius is restless. Last night against Liverpool, Xhaka took himself and his art to strange and challenging new places. He did not commit a red card offence. He achieved two simultaneously, each superimposed on the other: a quantum dismissal. Was he sent off for fly-kicking Diogo Jota in the chest, or was he sent off for denying Jota a clear goalscoring opportunity? Yes.
It's a strange game, football. Statistically, an early red card is almost the worst thing that can happen to a team; worse even than an early concession. But every now and then, a red card happens and it seems to make things simpler for the side affected. Not easier, necessarily, but simpler. The game reduces and clarifies, becomes a question of survival and nothing much more.
So it went at Anfield. Arsenal bunkered back, sealed off the penalty area, and said to Liverpool: ah hah, what good is the extra man, if there isn't any extra space? And Liverpool, absent their best two forwards and with Trent Alexander-Arnold — their best can-opener — in unusually subdued form, couldn't find a decent response. Ah hah! they said. And then: Er…
Well, Takumi Minamino in front of an open goal should have been the answer, but that didn't go so well. All perfect plans need a bit of luck.
By the Warm-Up's reckoning, this is the fourth completely different performance that Arsenal have turned in this calendar year, which isn't bad going when they've only played three games. First they stood up against Manchester City and played them off the park; then, also against City, they collapsed into a heap of daft decision-making. Then they stank the place out against Nottingham Forest.
And now at Anfield, where they should have collapsed, they didn't. Instead, Arsenal found unexpected reserves of concentration and focus, Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale emerged as the dominant personalities their transfer fees promised, and an improvised three-man midfield ran hard in front of an improvised five-man defence.
We might assume that inconsistency is the hallmark of a young and emerging team, and look to the positives. Or we might conclude that this whole Arsenal adventure has come unmoored from pedestrian reality and is floating off into a higher realm, where the laws of causality have been taken apart and then tied back together in exciting new patterns. Or both! Let's go with both.
Anyway, there's a north London derby at the weekend. Xhaka will miss it, which for Arsenal is good news and bad. He can't get sent off if he isn't playing, but Arsenal don't really have a midfield without him. Maybe the solution is to hold some kind of pre-game ritual in which Xhaka is 'dismissed' by a mascot dressed as a referee, has a bit of a pretend argue, and then shuffles off to the directors' box. All the inspirational benefits, none of the actually having to play with 10 men.
As for Liverpool, there were some important lessons here. For a start, don't pick a midfield three of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Fabinho, because you'll end up in a strange place where Joël Matip is your most creative midfielder. For an end, kicking the ball into the open goal is a good plan. Sort that, and they'll be fine for the second leg. Arsenal will have 11 men again, and so there should be more space.
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More Super Cup, Spain? You really are spoiling us. There is probably an argument that runs something like: it's a bit daft, running a four-team mini-tournament in Saudi Arabia, during an ongoing pandemic and one of the busiest seasons in recent memory.
But if this wasn't happening, we wouldn't have been given the heart-warming sight of Iñaki Williams giving his younger brother Nico, who had just scored the winner, a really, really big hug. So who can say, on balance, if this is good or bad.
It was a lovely goal, too. Every fibre of his being must have been screaming SMASH IT, SMASH IT AS HARD AS YOU CAN. But no, it was time for precision, and it was no more than Athletic deserved. By this point in the game, Atlético had melted away entirely, and it was more or less a battle of wills between Jan Oblak and all comers.
But as well as a proud moment for the Williams family, and a well-earned victory for this delightful Athletic side, this result kept a very important statistic alive. It's three years now that Spain has been running the expanded Supercopa, and in each of those three years, the final has been between the two teams that wouldn't have been playing under the traditional rules. It's this kind of gentle, emergent contrariness that keeps football interesting, despite the best efforts of everybody running the thing.
IN OTHER NEWS
Obviously the most exciting game of yesterday was the one the Warm-Up wasn't watching. But thank you anyway, to Napoli and Fiorentina, for three red cards and seven goals. Beautiful.
As enjoyable as it was watching Arsenal defend, and defend very nicely, it was hard not to feel a little short-changed. This fixture generally brings goals. Sometimes lots and lots of goals. Hey, remember when Andrey Arshavin scored four and still didn't win? Fun times.
That finish on the fourth goal, in a way it's the exact opposite of the Williams goal above. He has to place it. All he has to do is place it. Instead he smacks it as hard as he can, and it all turns out nicely.
We're going over to the Financial Times today, because we want you to know that this is a fancy Warm-Up that reads the fancy papers. Sometimes. At least, we do when they have interviews like this one, Murad Ahmed's delightful account of time spent with Fiorentina owner Rocco Commisso. Takes quite a personality to make both owning a football club, and being a literal, actual billionaire, sound like absolutely no fun at all.
When I ask Commisso, 72, if he’s enjoying owning the club he acquired in 2019 for €170m, all he has are gripes. Like the time in May when he held a press conference which descended into a slanging match with journalists. In a fit of pique, he offered to sell the club to any local who could stump up €335m within 10 days. There were no takers. "[If you] don’t have the money," he snorts, "you should shut up."
Friday night in the Premier League, and what do we have here? Why, it's only Brighton against Crystal Palace, the nation's most geographically distant derby. That'll be fun. Before that, the AFCON group stages continue with Senegal vs. Guinea and Malawi vs. Zimbabwe.
Have a good weekend. Tom Adams will be here on Monday, assuming he hasn't bought Fiorentina before then.
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