Football: Arsenal can join the contenders

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The Independent Online
Managers often claim that they learn more about their team in defeat than in victory. So what did Arsene Wenger learn about his Arsenal team during their 1-0 loss to Manchester United on Saturday?

"I learned these guys are really winners," he said. "They are so disappointed, so frustrated. I learn also they have a solidarity when they lose. Maybe David Seaman has a feeling he made a mistake but everybody is all right with him."

Is that all? Wenger's discovery puts you in mind of those surveys that take five years, 100,000 respondents and half a million pounds to discover that men think about sex a lot. Everybody knows Arsenal have a great team spirit; what we do not know is whether they have enough of all the other factors that make up a a championship-winning team.

Saturday's match was billed as the second of four tests of Arsenal's credentials. They arrived at Old Trafford with one examination passed - a battling 2-2 draw at Wimbledon - and two more, against Tottenham and Newcastle, to come.

Judged on the result, they failed on Saturday, but the difference was, as Wenger noted, "in the details". Had Ian Wright been sharper they would have scored, had Seaman not made an uncharacteristic blunder - fluffing a clearance which Nicky Butt eventually bundled in off Nigel Winterburn - they might not have conceded.

True, David Beckham had hit the post beforehand, and Eric Cantona and Karel Poborsky missed good chances afterwards, but by then Arsenal were pushing forward.

Arsenal's strengths are clear - the famed team spirit, the wise and experienced defence, and the supreme goalpoacher. Weaknesses are harder to spot, but there are hints. The defence - Lee Dixon apart - lacks pace, the midfield is short of imagination and the attack lacks width. Oddly they are also poor at set-pieces, a one-time strength.

Training ground practice can resolve that, while Patrick Vieira's inclusion has gone some way to remedying the first fault. The enterprise of Dixon, and to a lesser extent Nigel Winterburn, compensates for the second, but a winger (Glenn Helder appears to have disappeared from view) will surely be on Wenger's shopping list.

A creative midfielder and another central defender are also required in the long term, but introducing new players in such key positions can be risky in mid-season. More immediate is the need for reserve strength. "It is important not to have big injuries," Wenger said. "We have a short squad of maybe 15 players. It is maybe not enough to last a season." Suspensions are another problem; John Hartson was out on Saturday and another five were booked.

That was a reflection not on the refereeing of Graham Poll, who was excellent, but on Manchester United's marginal superiority. They began nervously and needed the crowd to lift them but, after they went ahead, the confidence returned. Though they still lack the old swagger they will at least face Juventus on Wednesday with renewed vigour.

"Our movement and pace caused them problems," Alex Ferguson said approvingly. "The longer it went on the more we became like ourselves."

Beckham, constantly driving them on, and Peter Schmeichel were their key players. Schmeichel had clearly benefited from the break. Though his early anger at Dennis Bergkamp chipping him after being whistled offside betrayed a lingering neurosis, he was thrice off his line with alacrity to thwart Wright.

On two of those occasions, one at the end of each half, the Dane had been aided by a poor first touch from Wright. Perhaps he should have come off against Stoke on Wednesday when he was asked to by Wenger but wanted to pursue a hat-trick. "I don't know if it would have made a difference," Wenger said ruefully.

The watching Glenn Hoddle will have thus been more impressed by Tony Adams. He was magnificent in defence but also showed signs of improvement in less familiar areas. One wondered how good he could have been had George Graham not restricted his self-expression for so long.

This result, and others, allowed United to haul themselves back into contention. Six points now separate the top six teams. This suggests it will be a more open contest than last season: a year ago Newcastle had 35 points, United 29 and Arsenal, in third, 24.

Two years ago five points separated the top five: Manchester United, Blackburn and Newcastle were on 33, Liverpool 29 and Forest 28. Within weeks the top two pulled away.

Logic suggests Wimbledon will slide, while Chelsea may not be ready. Yet the others are also flawed. Newcastle have injury problems in attack and question marks in defence, United are preoccupied by Europe, Arsenal's deficiences have been noted above. Liverpool? All the components are there but sometimes the jigsaw does not seem to be fitting into place. Wednesday's Merseyside derby will be an interesting counterpoint to Manchester United's European endeavours.

"It could be a much wider race than everybody thinks," Wenger said. "Chelsea is coming back, Everton has a chance, Liverpool and Manchester, Newcastle. We are not in a bad position... and maybe I forget one team. You look at the results today and you think every team can beat every team. That is good for the league because every fan, every team, can have hope."

Long may it continue.

Goal: Winterburn (og, 62).

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, P Neville; Poborsky, Beckham, Butt, Giggs; Cantona; Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), McClair, Cruyff, Scholes, Thornley.

Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Seaman; Keown, Adams, Bould; Dixon, Vieira, Platt, Winterburn; Merson, Bergkamp; Wright. Substitutes not used: Lukic (gk), Linighan, Parlour, Morrow, Shaw.

Referee: G Poll (Herts). Attendance: 55,210.

Bookings: Manchester United: Johnsen. Arsenal: Dixon, Vieira, Wright, Platt, Bould.

Man of the match: Beckham.