The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct. Sound familiar?

And so it goes on, dispiritingly. The interminable flopping and falling and ‘drawing’ of precious contact. The denial of the *actual* aim of the sport – which is to stick the ball in the net – through the cynical, life-blood-sucking phoney faint; because percentage-wise, penno’s pay.

Plus, (part XIV to-the-power-of-b-over-z-squared; The Case Against) there’s all this holding in the box. Not just a sly gathering of a corner of nylon but an absolute wrestle, as though there are no cameras, no ref and no reason moral or otherwise why you can’t try to bully the striker to a standstill or hoik him away from the arc of the ball; bizarre as well as appalling.

As if it wasn’t enough to poison the allegedly beautiful game on the park, reaction to this stuff brings out the worst in us all. (By the way, the thought does strike that we’ve gotten away lightly so far in terms of violence erupting either in the stands, between players or even against the referee but surely the time will come when a particularly enraging example of diving or holding will dangerously or tragically combust a cup-tie/relegation decider? Meaning we really do need to start dealing with this. By the way.)

There’s an unholy and delusional matrix around this that points us towards low expectation or worse; I find myself counting down the paragraphs before the dreary conclusion that ‘we get what we deserve’. I say this because following any incident fans as well as managers tend to divide so crudely, illogically and indeed pathetically on party or club lines. It’s embarrassing in a bad (unreasonable) way and it’s anti-sport.

In the case of Shawcross yesterday – that same Shawcross who molested his opponent relentlessly, pre the penalty, presumably not just to prevent him from attacking the ball but also in the hope (the hope!) that he may eventually strike out and be banished from the field – the incident was clearly and correctly dealt with by the officials. And yet on phone-ins and elsewhere the Stoke Faithful were bawling their grievances against that decision. We know that Mark Hughes (great footballer, depressingly flawed human) traditionally sets the bar shockingly low post-incident, but Sparky led the way on this, excelling himself whilst shamelessly ‘protecting his player’.
Hughes effectively said both Shawcross and more ludicrously Moses had been sinless. Whilst we can all appreciate the urge to support your tribe this went right past scandalous economy with the truth. For Hughes to try to make an intelligent argument against the unanswerable realities that Shawcross tugged and held absurdly long and that Moses shamelessly dived was, as an Australian cricket captain might have said, distinctly average.

If we choose to look for them there are always pro and contra-complexities. Moses was touched by the hand of the defender; Shawcross was by no means alone in his transgression across the boundaries of hugging. Therefore Hughes could formulate his apology, his simulation of a theory. But more broadly and more subtly, is the art of defending not about big clunky guys baulking shifty and spry opponents and should the spirit of things then not enable a kind of levelling of the playing field? How else could Shawcross (say) compete against Di Maria (say?)

This is of course cobblers. For any single offence, a single judgement is being made, not a philosophically inviolable summing up of the nature of things football. Do something outside the laws – get punished. Complexity comes (and ideally goes) through the official’s instinctive reading of the motivation of players at the moment in question and cross-reference of the rules. Referee: was that defender in making minor contact doing everything to avoid contact? So choose. Was that attacker only ever interested in drawing a penalty? So blow and reach for the yellow. These are a couple of the areas of difficulty, questions which launch a zillion unseemly appeals each weekend.

The fact that time and again the same few offences stir the nation to a Neanderthal fury should be a clue to something but if the cause is generally evident the path to resolution is fraught. In fact there is no path. Refs good and bad are left floundering under abuse.

Why? Essentially because honesty has gone walkabout. These players, these coaches are sporting superstars we cannot trust. They will neither accept the truth nor respect the authority charged with judging what is true. Set aside for the moment the fact that mistakes are bound to be made by those who make the calls; players and managers have made the game ungovernable and they should be deeply, deeply ashamed of the fact. They forget that they are role models; they forget that they are amongst the most fortunate; they forget that the real glory of sport centres upon competitiveness with honour. Or does it?

Does cheating matter? Does backing your side at all costs, even if reality and Alan Shearer contradict you matter? Or is it merely the inevitable result of awesomely high profiles and awesome TV revenues… and anyways, the next game’s here, so get real and get over it, right?

Are these merely the contemporary facts? That the game is simply framed differently, so that the respect of your opponent is an utter irrelevance to the current player? Is that right, is that how it is – or just some weird code nudging us towards giving up on sportsmanship?

I know how much of this sounds, how uncool and unsustainable it seems to invoke traditional virtues but still I consider myself more of a contemporary geezer than some dreamer of halcyon dreams. As such I call for modern solutions as well as a common return to a sense of what’s fair and right. Fat chance of the latter but no excuses now for not establishing immediate assistance to the referee from video review; retrospective guidance and where necessary punishment for acts of cheating under a beefed-up Ungentlemanly Conduct law, overseen by a small, expert panel.*

However viscerally any of us feel the drift to amorality it’s no good merely mithering on that. That language may no longer be intelligible so let’s characterise the state we’re in as a challenge. One where the chief protagonists are chiefly bent, either on some short-cut to victory, or just bent. No option then but to dictate; impose short sharp shocking doodahs – meaning bans for weeks rather than meaningless fines – and hope that in their inaction they might stop to think.

*Those who haven’t read me on this before may not be aware I’ve been promoting this notion that an expanded Ungentlemanly Conduct law could be used to penalise divers/cheats/fellahs who just did something that ain’t good for the game. I think it could work.

What it is with The Gooners.

Okay, so here’s the context and the central beef. Arsenal have been criminally non-durable for years; which is why we all doubt them. Wenger’s beautiful but psychotic purism has left them vulnerable to the memory of boggy pitches, the assumption of intimidation, or real-world Bigger Blokes or teams playing with simply more passion. In an ideal scenario perhaps a Gooner title triumph might elevate the lot of us… but the bulk of us still suspect this is contingent on the absence of (say) Tony Pulis and Cheik Tiote from the Prem landscape. Because if the level of inspiration dips at all, that seductive, metronomic not to say metrosexual heartlessness of Arsenal is just not enough; we know that. Like we knew The Arsenal came up to the Etihad early in crunch-month, with games against principal rivals rammed together. This is tough – like life.

But Arsenal’s perennial weediness kindof gets on our nerves, right? How can it be that they remain, so endlessly, a side unprepared for inevitable, sinewy, earthbound onslaughthood? How can that flaw persist so? Through year after year of more or less successful butterfly meadows later sprayed out. Wenger, to his credit and to his detriment and ‘midst the gnashing of our teeth, produces teams that will not set their sights so low as to block or to crunch or to stifle with physical oomph when they need to –that’s all we ask! They look to outplay the opposition only.

Look he knows – we’ve been telling him for years – that in this bitterly anti-meritocratic universe that ‘quality’ alone ain’t enough; sadly. He may even know (but not accept) that the result of the Arsenal Concept’s near-perfect one-dimensionalism is there will be a slide into capitulation (to generally lesser talents) and that it’s looming now. Six weeks, maybe, in which that lead at the top is swallowed up and the likes of Ramsey return to planet ordinary. And we watch as the mood music changes, as Arsene turns from the pitch again, exasperated, cut further by the sheer unfairness of everything, the anti-perfectness, the No Santa-ness, his Arsenal shot down by a sequence of either worthy and slightly unfortunate defeats and/or that dispiriting leakage of points to opponents that might a month ago have been imperiously (or should that be impishly?) dismissed.

Naturally then, after an emphatic win for City, in a pret-ty fabulous game that Arsenal, as always, contributed to generously, the odds have shortened on this Wenger trauma revisiting. For me their chief real-life weakness today concerned the failure to press the ball around the 35 yard mark. (Mind you, City weren’t much better at this.) Despite the presence of Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere, City had abundant time to play heads up football – to pick their runs, their passes – as they faced the Gooner defence. Toure and Nasri and Silva are all half-decent; you don’t need to be giving them time and space to consider things. And if Zabaleta ends up with acres to race into… lookout. This stuff happened, infuriatingly commonly for the Arsenal bench.

From early in the game City were allowed some comfort where for me it should have been denied. Without the ball, Arsenal dropped into two banks – midfield at about thirty yards out and Mertesacker’s posse on the eighteen yard line; give or take. It might have been nerves but for me they looked worryingly slightly like England in World Cup mode – faux resistant, unconvincingly solid – deep. Like England, they let the opposition play. Whilst this undeniably led to a hugely entertaining game – and some well-constructed goals – the policy of late (or non-)intervention demonstrably failed. Maybe the predictability of the concessions brought out the miserablist in me; I found myself forever tweeting about dreadful defending rather than glorious attacking. (Shit! Did I just sound like Alan Hansen and Morrissey in the same paragraph?!? HANG ME. Irrespective of whether I have a point on this…)

But lest I inadvertently take too much away from City a sentence or two about them – and their incontrovertible topness. Firstly – hey – they put six past Arsenal.  Secondly, they are surely the best-equipped side in the league – by some distance, perhaps – though this may not necessarily be reflected in the stats come the end of the season. They have that sureness, in particular going into the final third, where an intimidating mixture of power and movement is often irresistible and proved so again today. Thirty-five goals in eight home games is absurdly good going.

Aguero is close to sublime every week, Toure is often unplayable, Silva (even at 70% capacity) just class. And with Zabaleta unzipping defences on his own – nominally, from right back – no wonder they are pulverising anybody foolish enough to turn up at the Etihad. I expect this dominance to convert soon enough into stronger away form and for City to go on and win the Premiership –chased home, I imagine by Chelsea rather than Liverpool… with the Arsenal somewhere behind… (inevitably.)

Perhaps fair (to the other home keeper) to mention that the home keeper was Pants today and also that City like Arsenal were hardly error-free in their own half. But Pellegrini’s boys are candidates alright – not just for the Prem but at European level. So tangible was their superiority that it’s truly hard to imagine that they could finish behind Arsenal come May.

Further notes from the Arsenal angle might include reflections on Walcott and Wilshere. The former was often ineffectual or absent then scored his second with a fabulous curled stroke for the far corner; the latter is buzzing less productively currently and was I think guilty of an offensive sign to the opposition support. Up front Giroud – who, for me has received lashings of praise more for being present in the line-up than being brilliant in it – was mixed again and Ramsey has understandably returned to mortal levels. Ozil jogged round.

On the plus side Arsenal rallied bravely after the catastrophic third goal had been conceded but the necessary withdrawal of Flamini left them increasingly open to counter… not ideal against the free-running Nasri and a Toure with licence. The Southern Softies had little luck with borderline calls from the officials but City simply had bigger and better gears with which to travel and they travelled with ominous purpose.

So, after a Match of The Season So Far which really probably was match of the season so far… this. Just as we feared or imagined. A Christmas unravelling and a statement of intent. The Wenger stocking still needs filling (as it were) with urgent physicality, whilst the Pellegrini equivalent looks short of very little. Unlucky, unlucky Arsenal.