It may come as a surprise to Tony Pulis to learn that in the buildup to Stoke City's meeting with Arsenal on Sunday, Arsène Wenger actually agrees with him on something. The two managers come from opposite poles when it comes to football theory – with tackling a particularly emotive area of contention – but when the Arsenal manager ponders Pulis's latest outburst in defence of the physical game, he finds himself wondering whether tackling is sometimes "punished too much" by referees. Strange but true.
Wenger feels the image of him as a campaigner who would like tackles to be outlawed is a misconception. "Tackling is a technique and if it is done well, with the desire not to hurt but to win the ball, it is a fantastic technique," he says, before summoning the memory of a series of players he admired for their mastery of this art. "We had plenty here. Campbell, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon … That whole generation. I personally like players who are brave, but with the right spirit. I think the bravest players I have met were physical, but didn't hurt people. Usually the players who play to hurt are cowards. I am not sure if referees always make the difference between what is the right intention behind the tackle."
Precisely because detecting intention is so difficult, football ends up with some punished for a legal tackle, and others walking away from acts of appalling irresponsibility. Wenger would prefer not to again rake over the controversy that is never far from the surface whenever Arsenal meet Stoke – the Ryan Shawcross tackle that snapped Aaron Ramsey's leg in 2010 – especially as he feels that his Welsh midfielder is finally climbing towards the level he was enjoying before enduring such a devastating setback.
"He is getting back now," Wenger says. "He is gaining his touch again. He lost his touch a little bit for a while. The speed of the movement of his feet is there again but that takes a long time." Wenger is hopeful enough about Ramsey, who popped up with a coolly taken match-winner in the Champions League in midweek, to set him the target to score plenty of goals this season. "Aaron has strong physical qualities. He is quick, a strong runner, and a good finisher. If he develops his game well he can finish in double figures in the Premier League."
Wenger's main relief regarding Ramsey is that, unlike his other two players who suffered terrible injuries because of reckless tackles, Abou Diaby and Eduardo da Silva, the injury did not affect his ankle. "The thing you hate the most in football is to be injured at your ankle," Wenger says. "Every single uneven surface in football you correct with your ankle. When that sensitivity diminishes a little bit you are much more injury prone." Diaby, who had his ankle broken in 2006 by Sunderland's Dan Smith, has had an astonishing 28 separate injuries since. He has never really recovered to full strength and is unavailable to play against Stoke.