Health warning: anyone who suffers adverse physical reactions to traces of bitterness, lethargy, melancholy, self-pity, envy or hypocrisy should stop reading now. This is not going to be pretty.
As an Arsenal fan, for that is what I am, I should be in a relatively good mood. Yes, we’ve just blown a very presentable chance to win the Premier League, but then, other than Leicester City, who didn’t? On Sunday, I drank beer with friends and my dad, spent 15 minutes choosing between a classic burger and a cheeseburger (I went classic - cheese felt too celebratory under the circumstances) and rejoiced in the knowledge that our ‘loose stool’-coloured away shirt will never sully a football pitch again. Then I stood, crisping my pale English skin, under a sun that shone so brightly on the Emirates Stadium that it cast a shadow all the way to Tottenham, four miles and 21 years away. Yet, I lament. It’s lamenting that many will find lamentable: I believe that the beautiful game is dead.
Call the cops. It’s had a pillow pressed to its beautiful face until it stopped breathing, its final words muffled beyond recognition, although they were probably something to do with “finesse”, “good first touch” and “playing with your head up”. I use the word ‘pressed’ very deliberately, because ‘pressing’ is the monster by whose hand beauty has expired.
There once was a time, not so long ago, when the very best teams had a good work-rate, but it merely complimented a different priority: attractive, imaginative, aesthetically arousing play. Barcelona in their recent pomp are a fine example, as, in English terms, were the great recent Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal teams. They were like virtuoso cellists who insisted on carrying their own equipment into the Royal Albert Hall, then helped stack chairs after the concert.
The alternative, when it came to winning trophies, was a tactically-negative, but canny - even dirty - team, like Leeds United of the Seventies and Nineties, or any club touched by the ice-cold hand of Jose Mourinho. (Yes, I cheered as loud as anyone when Arsenal won trophies under George Graham.) Teams who relied predominantly on pure ‘graft’ were associated with relegation scraps, managers who wear tracksuits on the sidelines, and derailing Arsene Wenger’s seasons.
Now, however, the virtues of ‘running around a lot’ have superseded those of possession, passing and playing as if you like to paint watercolours in your spare time. 'Pressing' is the plat du jour of football. The likes of Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Spurs and, yes, Leicester City, are all about putting the yards in, rather than the sexy back. It’s practical, functional, industrial. That’s not to say it isn’t sometimes exciting and dynamic - all these teams have played some thrilling football at times - it’s just not very pretty or imaginative. It’s a post-pub bunk up. It gets results. Job done.
Obviously, the Leicester Story (certificate PG, coming to a streaming service near you soon), is wonderful. Obviously, I’m riddled with envy of their success and happiness. But I worry for the future of the game. We all like a bit of steel with our silk, but we’re in danger of going full cyborg. I’ve even noticed, on a few occasions this season, Arsenal attempting, badly and clearly against their collective will, to play a similar game. It’s like Dylan going electric because Gerry and the Pacemakers went electric. Or, as it sometimes feels, like Dylan going to the electric chair.
My biggest fear is that the aesthetes, the artists, the players and managers who probably enjoy a little toke and dabble in some avant-garde theatre during the off-season, will soon be asked to imitate – or worse, be replaced by – those who are more likely to spend their summers drinking lager shandies while listening to Meghan Trainor. That the pressure for success and silverware will cause principles and the love of stuff being done on a football pitch that makes you go “ooh”, to be shed faster than a dodgy prawn. Just look at this year's Goal of the Season shortlist. Not one great 'team' goal in there. A couple of good passes, but a lot of shots that, to borrow from the football cliché bible, would '99 times out of 100' have ended up dislodging someone's pie from their hand 'in Row Z'.
Yes, I know this all sounds very Arsenal, but surely even people who hate Arsenal and Wenger and certain Arsenal supporters’ position that we play football beautiful beyond the comprehension of any other humans, would hate for those reasons - those differences - to go away? Some Stoke fans would have absolutely no identity without it. Football needs beauty. It's a broad church, so let’s not replace all the stained glass windows with double-glazing.