Poor Chelsea and poorer Manchester United. The secret's out - and both teams are rubbish. Or this, at least, is what your average hack would hasten to convince us of. Over the past week, and after each club's displays on the continent, you would be forgiven for presuming that the so-called Blues and the plucky Red Devils will soon be ratcheting up cricket scores with their spiraling tallies of conceded goals.
There seems to be a fear that a rickety back-line will prove to be each of the team's Achilles heel. Even the cherry nosed knight, Alexander Ferguson, displays doubts over his team's defensive competencies. Is this to suggest that beneath his calm exterior there now lurks a closet fear that one day, tripped up by a fortuitous strike, his boys may never recover?
It is this atychiphobia that rings hauntingly of an oedipal disposition. For the footballer, to concede possession of one's ball (still worse to see it pummeled into the limp sack of a goal that sits behind you) is itself a dire symbol of castration. Not to suggest that any of these sporting legionnaires will open venereal union with the first vacant figure of a mother they encounter - although it wouldn't be the first time. But of we obedient few who still tune in to watch the Sunday match for love of the game rather than to smokescreen the shame of our solitary boozing, we should be wary of the implications of such a growing fad.
To our despair we will soon be forced to acknowledge that it is not nearly enough to lob the ball eagerly forth in noble hope of plugging the opponent's net. If for a second our teams leave an opponent unmarked. If at any point they play with the verve or daring that drew us to support them in the first place. If anything approaching style is enforced, then the perpetrators will be poo-pooed unsparingly for their showboating such a gaudy decadence. How dare these brutish parvenu even contemplate the audacity of a gallant three-pronged attack without first suring up the credential of their own flat back-four? Such flagrant generosity puts even the saintly Mother Theresa to shame.
Teams must now expunge their competitors in the very model of Pizarro leading his men to the slaughter of fifteen-hundred Incas. In our modern game none must yield an inch until victory has been executed. Though of course, we would be asked to ignore that the inevitable result of such tactics is a deadlock of opponents more static than the charge from a Van der Graaf Generator.
The consensus so follows that all sides who compete in the modern game should strive to repeat such displays of military success. If they allow even a whiff of conceded play, a breakdown of movement, or a single chance on goal, then may we all be permitted to survey their castigation on the back sheets of a thousand tabloid newspapers.
The strategy has its supporters of course. When the adopted Wearsider, Carlos Cueller, speaks out on the issue he rightly philosophises that "If you're defending well, you've at least got a point." And it is not only with words that he makes his point, as the centre-back and his pals can proudly boast of five cleans sheet since the season's kick off and, to crown this, a batch of half-a-dozen draws. When it comes to resisting opponent's strikers, the Black Cats of the North are bettered only - as are instinct will probably tell us - by the North Londoners of Arsenal.
But this is hardly fodder to presume that a single Gunners fan would be happy should his team return to drumming out the tight, frugal victories of the early nineties. For it was exactly these results that gave rise to sardonic cheers of 'One-nil to the Arsenal' - a chorus charged with such bittersweet aching that even the melancholy of Keats pales in comparison.*
This is the pitiful state of British football. In a sport supposedly for our entertainment it is perverse that we are instead subjected to a medium of emotionless, enduring obstinacy. If such 'entertainment' were to park itself upon any other stage it would surely be greeted by a walkout.
What would we make of Richard III if, for want of a less formidable narrative, Mr Shakespeare had cut back the play's first four acts? And, rather than a stream of marauding bloody conquests, he cleared the way for the Earl of Richmond to hastily trample the hunchback king on a tidy march to victory. Why does Defoe even mention Crusoe's island when surely it would better serve our needs if the castaway, with the wealth of his reclaimed estate, were delivered directly to England in the novel's first chapter? Better, eh, to keep our nerves intact? The results, of course, would but dull and, more so, absurd. Yet, it is this kind of bee-line pursuit that we are told is the mark of a successful game.
If any of us were honest we would admit that, far from an object of dejecture, the 3-2 nail biter is always superior to the jaundiced 5-0 drubbing. If conflict is the source of all drama then we must admit that the brand of remorseless walkovers that many football pundits crave presents no more drama than a snowplough clearing the road on a summer's afternoon.
What real fans depend upon is the exact opposite of that desired by unromantic critics. Gift these reporters and part-time commentators a small and gloomy room of their own. Here they may be left to clinically cut apart the tactics of a coach, to perform autopsy after autopsy on that foolish full-back who is rash enough to stray out of position.
Meanwhile, and for the rest of us, where there is only the stalemate, give us lazy goals that play may be revitalised. If our team is riding tall at 2-0 up, let their opposition rise and score a brace so we may bite our nails.
What the modern game needs is a more Sadeian inclination where torsos are flagellated, limbs are lost, and goals are both scored and conceded by the handful. There is no room for systematic control or that dirty, insidious habit they call fair play. For the love of entertainment, the more chaotic the better.
And only days after Fergie's and Di Matteo's boys were both equally censured by the press there is a sense that maybe they too aspire to achieve this. In the latest tête-à-tête at the top of the table they leaked goals faster than a Whitehall Mandarin does emails to the press. Not quite a cricket score but, when the alternative is a goalless standoff between mid-table bromides , it is at least a sign of intent. Footballers, step up for sloppy defending; for this is exactly what the paying public wants.
* Arsene Wenger's Gunners have since thrown caution to the wind and confused us all in a twelve goal thriller - albeit against a lesser side from the outer edges of Pangbourne.
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