Arsenal display a united front

Wimbledon 0 Arsenal 3 Winterburn 61, Platt 65, Bergkamp 83 Attendance: 18,335
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The Independent Online
WHATEVER the truth or conjecture concerning Arsenal's problems, Bruce Rioch received temporary comfort and saw encouraging commitment at Selhurst Park yesterday when two goals in four minutes brushed Wimbledon aside.

According to some of Arsenal's present and past inner circle, the rumours of discontent and warring factions at Highbury ought to be dismissed as nothing more than some creaks and groans, not a full-scale earthquake. Alan Smith, their former centre-forward, puts it all down to transition. "It takes at least a couple of years for a new manager to get everyone doing things his way," he suggested.

Although Rioch says the talk is all mischievous, mutterings that he will not be around for two more months, let alone two years, are going to take some shifting, especially as his contract remains unsigned.

A manager who is called in to meet his chairman and is told the club is right behind him generally knows that his time is up. Equally, a manager who feels the need to get all of his players together, tells them to ignore all the rumours and anything they read in the press and only believe what he tells them is obviously troubled. Rioch did that the week before last, after which Ian Wright put in for a transfer.

Significantly, when Wright later committed himself to the club until the end of the season, but still insisted that sooner or later he intended to move, he thanked the board for their "continued support", even though they turned down his transfer request. He did not thank Rioch until much later, which put some silent blame on the manager while guaranteeing that his own fans remain true. The fans seem permanently prepared to forgive Wright his poor disciplinary record and costly suspensions, but patience has worn thin among some members of the board and coaching staff.

Arsenal are an ageing team, and Rioch's continued talk of large-scale changes, plus his moves away from the familiar "steady as she goes" philosophy, must have made some of them feel uneasy and perhaps ready to look for last big pay-days elsewhere. Yet there is considerable allegiance among a group that has fought together long, hard and often successfully. They are mostly settled in north London and Hertfordshire and would be happy to see out their playing days at Highbury. Obviously, Rioch's threats of change also threaten their way of life.

Yesterday's threat was less complicated. Arsenal still needed points to secure a place in Europe, while Wimbledon needed them to keep their Premiership status. Both had been unbeaten in seven games: Arsenal with a five-man defence, but with John Hartson and Wright as twin strikers. Predictably, Arsenal attacked long, or down either edge from the back, which allowed Wimbledon plenty of midfield possession.

The Arsenal rearrangement enabled David Platt to make more than his recent quota of incursions into an opponent's penalty area, but Hartson, impressive in Wright's recent absence, remained the point of Arsenal's thrust.

Wright only slowly recovered match sharpness and it was Dennis Bergkamp who probably deserved to take Arsenal ahead shortly before half-time when Kenny Cunningham upended him in the area without any consequent disciplinary action.

Wimbledon briefly rode their luck, but a 57th-minute square pass across their penalty area by Wright saw Bergkamp brush a post with a searing, perceptive shot - welcome activity that was followed up when Lee Dixon's shot deflected off Neil Sullivan to Nigel Winterburn, who scored from close range.

When David Platt smashed in a long-range shot that took a deflection and beat Sullivan, a match that had been flat and evenly balanced was upturned. Bergkamp hardly needed to have a shot fumbled into the goal by Sullivan to secure victory.

For Wimbledon, the dangers of relegation get ever sharper, yet it was only a few days before that they travelled to Anfield and achieved a draw that could end up having a significant influence on the Premiership's title race this season.