A story line from today’s Barcelona UEFA Champions League 2-0 victory over Arsenal is a late booking by Barca’s Gerard Pique. Late in the second half, the defender slide into the Gunner’s Danny Welbeck and was shown a yellow card, which due to card accumulation meant he would be suspended for the second leg against Arsenal.
In his post-game press conference, Luis Enrique was asked whether the foul was intentional. TV cameras caught the manager and his defender chatting on the sideline after the 2nd Messi goal that sealed the match and the tie. Moments later the foul was committed.
Enrique denied that the foul was intentional but, if it was not, it was fortuitous for Barcelona. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit with Barcelona having 2 away goals and playing away would take a miraculous effort from Arsenal; assuming the likely Barcelona advance Pique playing in the return leg would mean risking him receiving the yellow in that match and missing the first leg of the next round, when the result is more in doubt. If Enrique held him out in the Arsenal match, he risks Pique receiving a yellow in the next game and missing the return leg, when Barcelona may not have such a massive advantage.
The foul itself was relatively harmless but obvious: Pique slide in and disrupted Welbeck’s run but not in a way that would likely hurt the player. Now he can get a rest and come back for the Round of 8 match. If this actually was the strategy – and again it was denied – why not admit to it? Or if it was not the strategy, why shouldn’t it have been?
We sports fans hate the idea of strategic “cheating”. We want our players to be in the moment, focused on winning the game or the tie. We paid with our time and/or our money to see a match and we want the players to perform for us. The same reason people boo when a starter is rested in a “meaningless” game or a player fails to run out a play when the result is settled is the same reason players and coaches don’t admit to strategies like getting a yellow to sit out the next game instead of potentially the one after. However, when we look at the bigger picture, our favorite teams benefit from these strategies.
Maybe we should be more forgiving for “big picture” thinking by our favorite teams.