The Calvin Report: Tumbling Arsenal concede the moral high ground

 

Duplicity and subterfuge are not, one imagines, among Arsenal's corporate values. But when the need arises, they have their uses. It is tempting to read too much into the whopping white lie that "the Arsenal brand is defined by more than winning".

Tom Fox, the empty suit in the commercial department who was responsible for such crass company messaging in midweek, offered a juicy hostage to fortune by wittering on about a "large and engaged fan base around the world who want to feel proud to belong to the club".

Cut through the scented silliness of such statements and reality wriggles out. The Arsenal fans in a relatively sparse Emirates crowd were duly grateful to Santi Cazorla. TV replays exposed him as a diver, but he was their diver, who did his duty. He received a standing ovation when substituted three minutes from time. Something to boast to the grandchildren about on the day Arsène Wenger and his players made the admirable gesture of donating their wages to charity. The memory of Cazorla's dive to win a pivotal first-half penalty deserves to fester.

Wenger was honest enough to admit he badly needed a home win. He found the mental strength and resilience he sought. In such circumstances principles are optional. Arsenal may affect higher moral standards, and indeed they do admirable work in the community, but as far as football is concerned, they are scuffling around with the rest of them.

They took advantage of the gullibility of referee Mike Jones, and there was something uniquely sad about the identity of the confidence trickster. Cazorla has enriched the Premier League with his technical excellence since his arrival from Malaga, but he should be stigmatised for the dive which won a penalty, and silenced the first stirrings of impatience.

Wenger was, like most managers in such situations, compromised. He reported Carzola's claim that he had felt contact with little conviction. "These things can go for you or against you," he rationalised. "It went for us today. If I think it was a dive I will speak with Santi. It is something I do not want to see. I am proud of the victory because it is important for our season. Our backs are against the wall and we were being questioned. Sometimes with top-level sportsmen, when they have to win, they win. "

He appeared a lot less agitated than in recent weeks when, according to seasoned observers, he has been unusually sensitive to slights, real or imagined. His decision to deride what appeared to be well-sourced stories about his assistant Steve Bould becoming a more forceful figure in the dressing room hinted at subtle strains.

For a club that, according to Wenger, is in "fantastic shape" Arsenal's problems are worryingly multi-faceted. The manager attempts to project a sense of beatific calm and belief in a long-term strategy, but merely gives the impression of being on auto-pilot.

The old certainties about his popularity are gone. Arsenal's attendance figures are a perennial mystery – yesterday's was 60,083 "tickets sold" when it appeared a maximum 50,000 had turned up – and the empty seats testified to apathy and the proximity of Christmas.

There is a sense of factions forming and splitting like malign cells within the body of the club. Rumours persist of problems involving support staff. Players are thought to remain resistant to conditioning programmes, in particular. Recent failures in the transfer market have highlighted tensions between Steve Rowley, Arsenal's long-serving chief scout, and Gilles Grimandi, Wenger's increasingly influential man in Europe. Whatever the truth, the depth and quality of the squad is questionable.

The form of Wojciech Szczesny, their only credible goalkeeper, has hit a plateau. Jack Wilshere, outstanding yesterday, may be expected to be all things to all Arsenal men, but he alone cannot compensate for the lack of physicality in central midfield. Mikel Arteta rarely wasted a pass and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain is maturing, yet the creative balance of the side is unconvincing.

As for strikers, Gervinho is disconcertingly random in both technique and effectiveness. Olivier Giroud is a work in progress but Marouane Chamakh is a waste of hair mousse.

One of those ubiquitous corporate banners was strung over the fourth tier above the travelling fans. It proclaimed "you can't buy class", which might have been well-intentioned but was factually incorrect and politically inconvenient.

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