Arsenal's big adventure

Ian Ridley studies a club that has boldly cast off the shackles of the past
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THE VERY fabric of English football will be challenged this season - Arsenal look interesting. Whether it is in more than in a Steve Davis sort of way we are about to find out, starting today against Middlesbrough.

This is the most eagerly awaited season since the one after Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup. Arsenal seem more eager than most, clamouring for a new era to begin under Bruce Rioch. George Graham's may have been the wonder years in terms of trophies but in entertainment value some were distinctly austere years. After a diet of powdered egg, Highbury is suddenly going bananas.

So far there have been only two new players and otherwise the playing staff looks decidedly thin. But in spending pounds 12m on Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, the Arsenal board have ushered in a new attitude. Rioch may not have the financial control that Graham enjoyed but he has been allowed to shed the shackles of the previous wage structure and the fans' appetite for charismatic players has been catered for.

"I think this is the most excited people have been since Charlie Nicholas was at the club," said Tony Willis, co-editor of George Graham: The Wonder Years and editor of the Arsenal fanzine One-Nil Down, Two-One Up. "George's policy was to integrate solid pros with lower-division signings and the club's home-grown players. Rioch has gone against the grain. We now have proven quality."

More will surely follow. Rioch has as yet been unable to prise Alan Stubbs and Jason McAteer away from Bolton Wanderers, and waits for the ricochets from the Andrei Kanchelskis skirmish, but the interest illustrates where he sees the priorities: a new partner for Tony Adams and more thrust from the right flank.

The cry ever since Liam Brady left the club has been for a creative midfield player, with John Jensen then Stefan Schwarz scarcely raising the pulse. It may no longer be a requirement. With Bergkamp dropping off Ian Wright to play in the hole, a revitalised Paul Merson coming from wide on the left and Platt surging from deep, a cordon bleu chef might just spoil the broth.

"I don't think anybody really expects Liam Brady to be replaced," Willis said. "But we do need goals from midfield." He pointed out that in the season before Wright's signing, Arsenal's midfield contributed 31 league goals; in the four after the striker's first full season the four players most often used in midfield by Graham scored only five goals in an aggregate of more than 200 appearances.

Platt, with his history of goals (he has scored 26 in 55 games for England) will be seen as the remedy. "I'm sure his introduction will give us another dimension," Rioch said. One hopes that the knee injury that has troubled him sporadically over the past six months does not debilitate.

The link between Bergkamp and Wright, who is used to a more physical partner, will also be crucial. "They both look capable," Rioch said. "Both can be explosive on a regular basis - Ian with his pace and Dennis in a calmer way." But Rioch had to give Wright a forcible reminder of what was required during half-time of a friendly against St Albans last week, say those just outside the dressing-room.

The pair's effect on Arsenal has been similar to that Jurgen Klinsmann had on Tottenham last season - when Highbury looked on enviously - for all the Spurs chairman Alan Sugar's reported scepticism last week.

"Dennis is a different player," said Rioch of his polo pony to Klinsmann's charger, "but he will have an impact. He hasn't got a get-out clause, that's for sure. He didn't ask for one and that's important." At Internazionale, he added, Bergkamp was at the wrong club at the wrong time, playing the wrong style. "People outside Arsenal thought that about Charlie Nicholas, that a move to Manchester United or Liverpool might have suited him better."

Remarkably for a side who escaped relegation by only six points, Highbury attendances averaged more than 35,000 last season - second only to Manchester United - probably because of the unfolding of the Graham and Merson soap operas, says Tony Willis.

"They were spectators rather than fans. The demographics of the stadium have changed," he added. Now, some 20,000 season tickets have been sold, and more could have been, but commendably the board want to keep half the ground for those unable to pay out one lump sum.

What can they expect for their money? "If you want to be successful, you need about 20 clean sheets a season," Rioch said a little disconcertingly before adding: "Brian's Clough philosophy was clean sheets, but his teams were never boring."

Besides the areas in which Rioch is seeking new players, reservations have also developed about the once rock-solid defence that struggled last season with the new offside law (a level attacker being counted as onside) and the clampdown on the tackle from behind. "I can look at it from another viewpoint," Rioch said. "If we have the ball at the other end more often, we won't have to worry about it. That's a better philosophy for me."

He added: "All we want to do as a team is to win games, and win games well when we can. Competitive all across the field, hard-working, hard- running, technically good, pass the ball well, score goals, defend, put the opposition under pressure. I want them to be capable as individuals of coping with the environment and the opposition, mentally very tough and physically fit."

There you have it. Middlesbrough et al need not even bother turning up, it seems. His are aspirations rather than actualities, however. Significantly, he talks about having the nucleus of a good team, rather than having a good team.

"I need a little bit of time to get to know the players," he said. "Probably in a year from now I will have more new faces in because I will be in a better position to know what I am looking for." At Bolton he was unafraid to make changes. There was a turnover of 40 players - 23 out, 17 in - in three years though more dealing was needed as the club moved up through two divisions.

Rioch will get two years' grace, Willis believes. "One to play decent football, one to win something. If the fans see attractive football, goals being scored and a place in Europe at the end of this season, they will be satisfied."

When the Buffalo Bills bored the nation by reaching four consecutive American football Super Bowls, one of their fans unfurled a banner, "Deal With It America". It looks as if England will have to deal with a different Arsenal. "Life won't be dull, I can assure you," Rioch said.

Amid it all, spare a thought for Alan Smith, the totem striker whose ability to hold up the ball and whose memorable goal brought Arsenal the European Cup-winners' Cup two seasons ago. A knee injury has forced his retirement, contributing to Arsenal's present short-staffed look. Kevin Campbell and Stefan Schwarz have also departed.

"It is sad, yes, because everybody wants to be involved in a new era," Smith said. "I'm playing golf, keeping active and I enjoy the outdoor life. Mind you, it's easy in this weather. It's when the winter comes." That, too, will be the test for Arsenal. The optimism of August may not come cheap, but it comes more easily than the prizes of spring.