Arsenal's need for more imagination

Glenn Moore looks at the future for the Gunners following defeat in Europe
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The Independent Online
They were still there nearly two hours after the game, with Arsenal well on the way to Stansted. The Real Zaragoza players, having changed into their suits, were waving the European Cup-Winners' Cup in front of their ecstatic supporters.

Every few moments, 15,000 Spaniards would all go "shush" as a player attempted to speak to the blue-and-white masses. From high in the Parc des Princes stadium, it was impossible not to be infected by their joie de vivre.

Hours later, in an all-night restaurant in central Paris, a few of those players were quietly celebrating; champagne corks popped and some Spanish supporters gently cheered. And this team were supposed to be bad travellers.

And Arsenal? They were booked on to Wednesday night's flight to Essex, win or lose. But if they had earned the right to celebrate, they would have done it as a team.

Their success in Europe over the past two seasons has been based on insularity, rather than the embracing of a wider culture. Their game is built on traditional British virtues - set pieces, team spirit, a slick offside trap and defensive- minded midfielders - leavened by moments of individual brilliance.

It was cruel in the extreme that the man who has produced the bulk of these, David Seaman, should ultimately be responsible for Arsenal's defeat. But credit, too, to Nayim for his audaciously-conceived and stunningly executed shot. Arsenal produced nothing to compare, either with that, or Juan Esnaider's opening goal. Their lack of imagination found them out.

Equally British was their inability to build considered attacks. Patient as Job at the back, their attacking play was riddled with error. Ambitious passes were intercepted, runners were not spotted, brains were not engaged; the memory will long linger of Lee Dixon running 60 yards to make an overlap five minutes from the end of extra-time, only for Ray Parlour to hoof an optimistic shot over the bar.

Then each time possession was needlessly squandered, the Spanish side would come forward in waves of short passes, carefully inter-passing while they looked for the killer opening. It was close, but their victory was deserved.

Although there was no silverware for Arsenal, there may be a silver lining. Defeat has probably closed the book on the George Graham era, a time of triumph latterly sullied by financial scandal, but it could be the catalyst for a new period of prosperity.

Afterwards, Tony Adams, an influential figure in Highbury's marble halls, paid what sounded suspiciously like a valedictory tribute to Stewart Houston, the caretaker manager. "Stewart has come in and kept things just the same as George Graham did," Adams said. "He has taken it in his stride and we all thank him for the job he has done for the last three months."

Houston has shown enough promise to deserve a long-term opportunity to shape a club, but Arsenal need to make a clean break. Bruce Rioch and Ray Harford are favourites for what will be a challenging but enticing task.

In Seaman, Adams, Stefan Schwarz and John Hartson, Arsenal have a strong spine. Lee Dixon and Ian Wright are good for another season or two, but surgery is required elsewhere. The defence could remain as a unit but is collectively growing old, and gradual change now would avoid a complete refit in a couple of years.

The midfield is the major problem. Arsenal have a series of Identikit plodders - even Schwarz is a support player, not a creator. Paul Merson may be worth a try alongside him. Trusted with a key role, he may at last fulfil his potential.

If Rioch came to Highbury, Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs might be persuaded to follow. Stubbs would go alongside Adams, McAteer on the right of midfield. With Glenn Helder on the other flank, the midfield could read: McAteer, Merson, Schwarz, Helder. Attractive - but is it Arsenal?

The first task for the new manager will be to ponder the wisdom of entering the Inter-Toto Cup. Once a summer cup created to provide pools-coupon games for Eastern and Baltic Europe, this competition now carries access to the Uefa Cup.

Having greedily seized the chance of entering last August, most Premiership chairmen have now bowed to their managers' requests to give the players the summer off. Arsenal are yet to decide.

England already have six definite European competitors next season - Blackburn, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and two out of Leeds, Newcastle and Everton. The key question is who goes into the Champions' Cup, and there were more than a few Uefa officials with a passing interest in the score from Old Trafford on Wednesday.

England is one of the big four European markets for television fees, advertising and sponsors, and Uefa are desperate to ensure the English champions go straight into the league stage and are not knocked out - as Rangers were - in a qualifier.

However, the eight seeded Champions' League clubs are supposed to be chosen on merit, through a complicated marking system based on each club's European record, and that of their nations' teams in general.

There is no problem if United are champions - their pedigree means automatic seeding. Blackburn, with an almost non-existent European record, will struggle to qualify.

However, given Uefa are better equipped with creative schemers than most of the clubs they govern, their red tape should not be difficult to penetrate. For Blackburn, the hard bit may be winning the title on Sunday.

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