Overall Sokratis Papastathopoulos had a relatively solid first season at the Emirates. Despite the club’s poor defensive record, Sokratis impressed at times, never shying away from a tackle and never hesitating to put his body on the line to block shots. He was the only constant in what seemed like a revolving door of centre back partnerships. There was a huge amount of variety in who was playing alongside him due to the number of injuries Arsenal suffered at the back. He was paired with Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and even at times Granit Xhaka and Saed Kolasinac being forced to deputise in central defence.
The experienced Greek defender is something of a throwback in his style of play, an old school centre back who brought some much-needed steel to the Arsenal defence. He had a number of standout performances last season. The two that really stick in the mind are how he dealt with the threat of Harry Kane at Wembley keeping the Tottenham and England striker quiet for the vast majority of the game and his excellent performance against Chelsea at the Emirates in one of Arsenal’s most complete displays of the season. However, his old-fashioned style of defending could prove to be his undoing at times this season with the introduction of VAR.
VAR has now been accepted by most but does still, have its’ critics. The biggest criticisms of the new technology are that it can, at times, ruin the flow of the game with long stoppages and that referees tend to have an over-reliance on the replays to make big decisions. One element of VAR that could definitely be seen in the World Cup, Champions League and Women’s World Cup is that it doesn’t have any time for the so-called “Dark Arts” in football. Sokratis showed last season that he is a master of these skills. Whether it be holding onto players to prevent them threatening from set-pieces, giving opposition strikers a little love tap after the ball is gone, or holding onto an attacker’s shirt to prevent them from getting in behind him, the Greek centre half is a win at all costs type of player. It is these things which Arsenal fans loved from him last season however, that could end up costing him this season. We already saw the negative impact of these tactics last season even without VAR as Aaron Ramsey’s goal versus Newcastle at the Emirates was chalked off due to Sokratis foul off the ball in the build-up.
Since VAR’s introduction, we’ve seen a number of penalties given from set-pieces for the grappling and holding that defending players have gotten away with for years. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see Sokratis getting pulled up for this and costing Arsenal a few penalties this season. He already has a history of this in his Arsenal career, one example occurring at Anfield last season when he unnecessarily bundled Mo Salah over in the box, the forward not hesitating to hit the deck under the challenge. With VAR in operation, strikers have all the more reason to go down under such challenges as with more angles available to officials, these fouls are more likely to be given.
Particularly playing against more physical forwards, the former Dortmund man loves to get involved in a battle and push the limits of what he can get away with. Against the Premier League’s more clever strikers, any touch from an elbow or hand and they will be sure to fall to the ground clutching their face. This will force the officials to take a second look at what happened and as we’ve seen with VAR, when referees get a chance to look at things in slow-motion, from any number of angles, it makes incidents of this nature, at times, look much worse than they are. In competitions where VAR has been in operation, this has already caused more red cards to be handed out and penalties to be awarded and it’s not much of a stretch to expect the Premier League to follow this trend.
Like most players who pride themselves on their toughness and physicality, discipline has at times been an issue in his short Arsenal career. The majority of games which Sokratis did miss for Arsenal last season were due to his indiscipline. He missed the second leg of the Europa League tie with Rennes after being sent off for picking up two pretty avoidable yellow cards in the first half of the first leg and also missed two crucial Premier League games in the race for a top-four place after picking up his 10th yellow card away at Everton. This yellow card was for a needless cynical foul on Dominic Calvert-Lewin when there really wasn’t much threat to the Arsenal goal. Arsenal paid the price for the loss of Sokratis as they lost the second of these games at home to Crystal Palace, putting in a dismal defensive display in the 3-2 defeat. This proved to be a devastating result in Arsenal’s pursuit of Champions League football.
With the vast experience, the 31-year old possesses he should have a better understanding of when he needs to make a professional foul and when it’s best for the team to trust his teammates to cover and let the player go. The incidents outlined above are why I fear for Sokratis this season with VAR in place. Arsenal fans will be hopeful he can show maturity and cut out some of the more needless elements of his game as, just like last season he is a crucial player at the back for Unai Emery with his leadership qualities, aerial ability and willingness to throw himself in front of anything to prevent a goal.
The Newcastle match last Sunday past without any mention of VAR which is definitely a positive but Burnley on Saturday will pose a different threat. Their direct approach putting balls into the box at every opportunity and the massive threat they pose from set-pieces will be a bigger test for Arsenal’s backline. The battle between Sokratis and Burnley striker Ashley Barnes is sure to be one of the more intriguing match-ups in the game as there will be no shortage of physicality in their duel and I wouldn’t be surprised if VAR is called into action for some incidents involving those two.
Speaking as an Arsenal fan, hopefully, Sokratis can avoid any of these incidents this season and I’ll be forced to eat my words.