TWO YEARS ago it was a home defeat by Blackburn; this season it may turn out to be the bitterly contested defeat at Spurs. All season Arsene Wenger has been looking for a sign that his team of talents have found their focus; Saturday's mauling of Middlesbrough suggested they have.
"It was the best we have played this season, we had defensive concentration and offensive efficiency," said Wenger after Middlesbrough had been clinically dissected.
The win moved Arsenal up to third, four points behind Manchester United. On this day two years ago, when they went on to win the Double, the Londoners were also third, four points behind Manchester United. Moreover, in that season United did not have to visit Japan and Brazil, nor compete in an expanded Champions' League, while Arsenal actually slipped 10 points behind United.
That title was won by an unbeaten 18-match run in which Arsenal took 48 points from 54. The mid-December Blackburn defeat, which left them 10 points behind United, was the catalyst then. Wenger hopes the Spurs game will provoke a similar response now.
"The challenge and the target is to repeat that, one game is not enough," he added. "At the moment we have a problem of consistency, this team has huge potential but sometimes does not concentrate when it starts the game."
Arsenal's performance stilled growing speculation about the future of their attacking Dutchmen and ageing defence. The latter was largely undisturbed yesterday while both Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars were excellent. Bergkamp had a hand in two Overmars goals and might also have had a hat- trick but for the excellence of the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Wenger was full of praise for the way Bergkamp is now getting behind defenders to run at goal, rather than always coming off them to link the play - as he was encouraged to do when partnering Nicolas Anelka. As for Overmars, he praised his combination of pace and intelligent movement before adding: "There is always destabilisation around players in modern football, we have no special problem with Overmars."
We will see, though only a fool - or a greedy player - would voluntarily leave Arsenal at present.
For all the Dutch brilliance, the pivotal player was Emmanuel Petit, who dominated a midfield in which Paul Gascoigne was bypassed and Paul Ince outgunned. Both Bryan Robson and Wenger noted that Gascoigne was not match-fit - he has missed seven weeks - but it is hard to see him keeping his place when Christian Ziege returns from suspension. At 32, younger than Tony Adams, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, he looks, sadly, to be consigned to history.
His ball-circulation was quicker than of late, and he linked well with Ince, but it is inconceivable that Gascoigne might yet play a role for England. What a waste; if only he had sorted himself out when Adams did he might still have a part to play.
Kevin Keegan, incidentally, was not present, having taken a weekend break from football. This was probably a good thing: while he would have enjoyed Arsenal's sublime passing, it was not a match to cheer the England coach.
Instead it encapsulated his problems. Quite apart from Gascoigne and Ince's peripheral contributions the best performances were French, Dutch and Australian while of the 22 starters, only one of the 10 English players was aged under 30. True, four more English players came off the bench, but one was 31, the others under 21. Only 26-year-old Ray Parlour was of the age that the team for the 2002 World Cup will be built around. Parlour, at least, played well, and in a central position. "He could play there for England," said Wenger. As long as he is not put on the left again.
Keegan might have recognised something familiar in Middlesbrough; as Robson said: "Without Ziege and Keith O'Neill we were unbalanced on the left." They were no better elsewhere. Utterly outplayed from start to finish, one wondered, when they came out early for the second period to find the groundstaff still replacing divots, if it might be a fairer contest if they played them instead.
Arsenal scored at important times. Overmars, cleverly released by Bergkamp, scored just as it seemed their opening burst would come to nowt. To quote Robson, Bergkamp, from 20 yards, and after beating Juninho and Ince in the tackle, then "knocked the stuffing out of us" just before the break.
To quote Wenger, after Brian Deane hit the bar, Bergkamp, running on to Freddie Ljungberg's pass, then scored "the decisive goal". Overmars, following up his own penalty, harshly awarded after Gianluca Festa handled Bergkamp's backflick, added a fourth. Then, after Hamilton Ricard's persistence pulled one back, Nelson Vivas laid back Davor Suker's cross for Overmars to complete his hat-trick.
It could have been much worse for Boro as Petit and Parlour hit the woodwork, Festa cleared Ljungberg's shot off the line and Schwarzer made a string of fine saves. The shot count was 21-5, the corner count 11-1. "They looked hungry," added Wenger. "They had had time to consider what had happened and they knew they were at a stage of the season where they have to react."
All that, and only one yellow card. The Gunners are beginning to fire, the right way.
Goals: Overmars (24) 1-0; Bergkamp (40) 2-0; Bergkamp (49) 3-0; Overmars (60) 4-0; Ricard (67) 4-1; Overmars (78) 5-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon (Vivas, 71), Grimandi (Upson, 50), Adams, Winterburn; Ljungberg, Parlour, Petit, Overmars; Bergkamp (Suker, 75), Kanu. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Henry.
Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Gavin, Vickers, Cooper; Festa (Stockdale, 12, Mustoe, h-t), Juninho (Campbell, 75), Ince, Gascoigne, Fleming; Ricard, Deane. Substitutes not used: Beresford (gk), Armstrong,
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).
Bookings: Arsenal: Adams. Middlesbrough: Ince, Festa, Deane, Gascoigne.
Man of the match: Petit.