Gabriel’s second yellow card in the space of a few minutes against Manchester City on New Years’ Day handed the champions the initiative in a match in which they had struggled to assert their customary superiority. The successive yellow cards were reminiscent of Arsenal’s first red card in the Premier League when Nigel Winterburn received his second booking in the home game against Liverpool in January 1993. It was also a significant landmark as Gabriel’s was Arsenal’s 100th sending-off in the Premier League, becoming the first club to reach a century of red cards since 1992/93 [see below]. While this is certainly no badge of honour for the Gunners it does point to an aspect of their footballing philosophy that sometimes goes unnoticed.
Most Red Cards in Premier League by club
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Arsène Wenger’s arrival at Highbury in October 1996 revolutionised the fortunes of Arsenal in so many ways. Having previously attracted the moniker of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ under George Graham the playing style was transformed into a more free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing type of football that drew admirers far and wide. The players had to quickly adapt to a continental approach most ostensibly in their eating and drinking habits, with Mars bars and beers being replaced by fruit and water. “I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables.”
In 1996 the Guardian’s David Lacey noted the change in tack required. “The domestic game needs to share the spread of ideas as well as offering opinions of its own,” Lacey wrote. “This applies not only to tactics and playing systems but the whole approach to the way footballers eat, drink, sleep and generally live. In this respect Wenger could hardly have chosen a better club with which to set an Augean example. Cutting out the post-match drinking would be a start.”
Wenger not only changed the players’ food and drink intake but also gave Arsenal a continuous diet of European football. Under Wenger, having only played in the European Cup once before in their history, the Gunners qualified for the Champions League for nineteen years on the trot. There was another sea change, which underpinned the expansive style, the change in nutrition and the long run of success as Arsenal added a steeliness.
In Wenger’s first two seasons in charge Arsenal had eight players sent off, prior to his appointment it took four seasons to accumulate so many red cards. As his first signing, Patrick Vieira was the epitome of that steeliness. There is no coincidence that Vieira heads the table [see below] for red cards with eight in his nine years as the central fulcrum of Wenger’s team. Vieira shares the ignominy of having the most red cards in the Premier League alongside Richard Dunne and Duncan Ferguson.
His first came from using foul and abusive language to referee Stephen Lodge against Coventry in January 1998 and he got sent off at least once in the next five years. His eighth and last was in that infamous game at Old Trafford in September 2003 early in The Invincibles season when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in added time. Vieira had been dismissed ten minutes earlier for kicking out at the Dutchman after a tangle between the two of them.
Arsenal’s roll of dishonour incorporates 57 different players, from current boss Mikel Arteta to MoTD regular Ian Wright. The Gunners’ worst disciplinary season was 1998/99 when they received a total of seven red cards with Vieira picking up his customary one, while Emmanuel Petit and Martin Keown got two each, Lee Dixon received his marching orders for the only time in over 300 Premier League appearances and Gilles Grimandi received one of three PL red cards. In Wenger’s 828 PL matches Arsenal notched up a total of 78 red cards at an average of around one every ten games.
It is not just under Wenger that Arsenal players have regularly had first choice of the shampoo; in the 302 non-Wenger matches to date, there have been 22 dismissals at an average of one every fourteen games. Since Arteta took over at The Emirates in December 2019 Arsenal have had eleven players sent off – the most by any club in those two years. By contrast, a team that many would view as the polar opposite of the attractive fluency of Arsenal in their pomp have not had a single player sent off for over three years. Sean Dyche’s Burnley have not had a player dismissed since Robbie Brady was sent off at Huddersfield on 2 January 2019.
Former player and football journalist Adrian Clarke is well placed to assess how this indiscipline stacks up. “It’s not a milestone Arsenal will be proud of,” Clarke says. “But I also find it pretty surprising that they are the first to reach 100 red cards. Since they last won the title the Gunners have frequently been labelled as ‘soft’ and a team that doesn’t relish the physical side of the game.
“While I don’t subscribe to various conspiracy theories over officiating at all,” Clarke continues. “I do feel that Arsenal have been dealt with more harshly than others on occasion. They are usually ranked pretty low for fouls conceded. The bottom line is that red cards usually equate to a lack of discipline in terms of decision-making & that is an area they must improve. The very best teams are never reckless. They manage game situations smarter than the rest. That’s the lesson to be learned.”
And it is a lesson that has one hundred case studies to work from, the vast majority of which came during the reign of Le Professeur.