For those within football with an axe to grind concerning the honesty and integrity of the current Arsenal team, the turning point of Tuesday night's Carling Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur provided compelling evidence supporting their case.
With the match poised tantalisingly at 1-1 in the second minute of extra time, the elusive Samir Nasri ran across Tottenham defender Sebastien Bassong, who put out an arm to block his opponent's run. Bassong knew Nasri was faster, and the movement of his arm appeared to be a desperate attempt to stop the Arsenal midfielder getting too far ahead.
However the various TV replays of the incident showed that whatever contact there was, it was the merest of touches. Nasri fell swiftly to the ground, twisting in mid-air as if he had caught his sleeve on an imaginary door handle, and referee Lee Probert awarded the penalty.
Nasri converted the kick to put Arsenal ahead, and they went on to win 4-1 which included another Nasri penalty, this one a more clear-cut decision. After the game Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp accused Nasri of faking it. "I thought the first penalty was harsh. He fell over. Really, I think he dived for it," Redknapp said.
The view was shared by Bassong, who complained: "I touched his chest but I did not grab him. He went down too easily. He told me afterwards that I just barely touched him."
After a week in which the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger had been accused by Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce of trying to influence referees with his statements to the media, it appeared that perhaps Big Sam has a case.
His complaint is that Wenger's persistent moans that opposition players go out to kick anyone in an Arsenal shirt puts pressure on officials to be lenient towards the Gunners. It was supported by Bolton manager Owen Coyle, who accused Wenger of being hypocritical and of turning a blind eye on the occasions his own players are guilty of dirty play. The theme is a familiar one – last season Wolverhampton Wanderers' midfield enforcer Karl Henry accused the Gunners' players of "going down like a sack of spuds."
Similarly, Redknapp's accusation that Nasri dived to win a penalty on Tuesday taps a seam that has been mined many times before, not least last season when their former striker Eduardo won a penalty by falling in the vicinity of Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc in a Champions League play-off, for which he was initially banned for two games by Uefa until Arsenal's appeal was upheld.
It is a hugely sensitive subject at all football clubs, but especially so at Arsenal following the furore last season over Eduardo's dive against Celtic. Things were not helped when a month later Robin van Persie confessed his guilt to "exaggerated falls" to show a referee when he had been fouled. After the Eduardo incident Emmanuel Eboué was booked for diving against Manchester United, while Nicklas Bendtner received a yellow for falling over against Liverpool.
The teenager Jack Wilshere was also accused of diving for the England Under-21 team to earn a penalty in last September's victory over Macedonia.
The accusation that Arsenal players have a licence to exaggerate any contact in the penalty area gained credibility last September when Wenger rode to the defence of Van Persie's comments.
"Sometimes when a striker is fouled he wants to make sure the referee sees that, which is what Robin was talking about. He wanted to show there is a difference between what people call diving and being fouled," Wenger said.
In effect, Wenger was confirming what Henry of Wolves and a host of others in the English game already believe, that Arsenal players "go down like a sack of spuds."
Arsenal believe the opposite, that Henry and others like him kick the north Londoners more than any other team. The latest statistics show, however, that so far this season that unwanted tag has gone to Everton.
Other figures published at the weekend also highlight one of the main reasons for Wenger's sensitivity. A recent table showed that on average Arsenal field the lightest team in the division, and one of the shortest. It confirms the perception that ever since Patrick Vieira was sold in 2005, Arsenal have been a lightweight team. This perception helps explain the current situation.
In any football match it is a sensible and wholly justifiable tactic to focus on an opponents' weakness, whether that be a dodgy left-back, a goalkeeper who can't catch crosses, or – in Arsenal's case – a soft midfield.
Players such as Nasri, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Denilson do not have the physical presence of Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. Instead, if they are kicked, they are liable to make a meal of it to show the referee they have been fouled, as Wenger admits.
It was Wenger's decision to sell Vieira and build a new, young team packed with ball-playing midfielders who do not relish the bruising side of the game. Teams have attacked this Achilles heel, sometimes going too far which has led to a spate of nasty injuries like those sustained in recent seasons by Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey. The consequence for Arsenal is a belief that they are kicked too much – and they want to show this to referees at every opportunity, making it likely they will fall over even if the contact is slight. Cheating is too strong a word for it, as by and large Wenger and his team do not set out to deceive. However the evidence suggests they are willing to exaggerate the opposition's foul play in an attempt to highlight it to the referee, knowing that they are more likely to lose the more physical the game becomes.
Walking targets or the worst divers? What the numbers tell us
1. Do Arsenal dive for penalties more than other teams?
Not last season they didn't. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp may have complained that Samir Nasri dived to win his first penalty at White Hart Lane in the Carling Cup on Tuesday, but last season they won only four penalties in 38 league games – three times fewer than Chelsea.
The current campaign, though, has already seen Arsenal win five penalties, two in the Premier League, two on Tuesday and one in the Champions League. Liverpool, with three, have the next highest tally. Spurs have been awarded one.
It is not the first time that the Gunners have been at the centre of a diving controversy. Last season Eduardo was banned for two Champions League games by Uefa after being accused of diving against Celtic, but it was overturned on appeal.
Premier League penalties awarded (2009/10):
Sunderland, West Ham 9
Aston Villa, Everton, Hull, Man United 8
Burnley, Portsmouth 6
Manchester City 5
Arsenal, Birmingham, Bolton, Fulham 4
2. Are Arsenal 'kicked off the park'?
It is one of Wenger's pet moans, but so far this season they are not being kicked anywhere. Arsenal players have been fouled 50 times over the course of five league games – only Manchester United and Chelsea have suffered fewer illegal challenges. Struggling Everton are currently the most sinned-against in the top flight, having been on the receiving end of 94 fouls in five games.
Least fouled Premier League teams (2010/11):
Manchester United 44
3. Do Arsenal commit more fouls than Blackburn?
Sam Allardyce and Wenger have frequently exchanged verbal blows and the Blackburn manager recently asserted that his side were no worse than Arsenal when it came to putting the boot in. But the stats come down in Wenger's favour, although they are closing the gap this season.
Fouls committed last season:
Cards last season:
Arsenal 56 yellow + 1 red
Blackburn 59 yellow + 2 red
Fouls committed this season:
Cards this season:
Arsenal 8 yellow + 2 red
Blackburn 7 yellow + 0 redReuse content