Football: Arsenal still seek right mix

Arsenal 0 Newcastle United 0
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The Independent Online
UNTIL GABRIEL BATISTUTA booted them out of the Champions' League at Wembley last week this is what Arsenal told themselves: We are stronger than last season. We have more talent. We can operate on two fronts. We have a variety of attacking options that most of our rivals would kill for.

They now know better. If the demoralising loss to Fiorentina and Saturday's failure to break down Newcastle's dogged resistance at Highbury proved anything it is that Arsene Wenger is no longer sure about the route he should be taking.

Explaining the absence of Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Nwankwo Kanu from his starting line up ("We spent three days talking about Kanu and then he's not in the team," Bobby Robson said, smiling) was not easy for Arsenal's manger. "After three games in 10 days I wanted to give some of our players a rest and it's important to keep everyone in the squad interested."

If there was all that to talk about, Wenger's decision to pair Thierry Henry and Davor Suker in attack nevertheless hinted at dissatisfaction. Nicolas Anelka may not have been all Wenger wanted to be on the field and a pain in the butt generally but his forceful running stretched defences. "That's something we haven't got," Wenger admitted.

Henry, a wide runner who gave way to Bergkamp at half-time, was not the answer. Experiment over. Soon, Overmars was back out there too and had Martin Keown not been forced from the match by a an injury Kanu would have joined the two Dutchmen.

Does anyone out there remember when Arsenal last had an attacker who provided an ariel threat? When did Bergkamp last score a goal with his head? Has the quest for sophistication obscured the value of attacking fundamentals?

If luckless against Fiorentina last week Arsenal seldom looked like unravelling the shamelessly negative strategy Newcastle adopted. "We don't pay to see teams come and try to kill the game," a disgruntled Arsenal supporter said on Saturday night.

What else did he expect from a team trying to escape from the bottom three and beaten every time on the road this season? "I agree," Robson said, "it wasn't pretty but we need points and have proved today that we can stand up to the best opposition. Psychologically, this has been a big boost for us."

At 66, Robson has seen it all, not least what can be achieved if players work for each other. He does not have to be a tactical genius. It is what he imparts in matters of common sense and endeavour.

Robson might have trouble remembering names but on Saturday's evidence he has put new life into a team that lost its way under Ruud Gullit and still looked pretty miserable when put out of the Worthington Cup by Birmingham City.

The essence of Newcastle's strategy was suffocation. A narrow back line of three in which Franck Dumas was outstanding and five negatively disposed midfielders.

Most of the time it was awful, error strewn, a match with hardly anything worth a mention. Was the ball over the line when Dumas hoofed away a Patrick Vieira header? Television evidence proved inconclusive and it happened so quickly that Arsenal did not mount much of a protest. "If it was over then we didn't get the bit of luck we needed," Wenger said philosophically.

Another question. Should Keown have received a red card from referee Peter Jones for hauling down Alan Shearer just outside the penalty area?

After rising to leave the room, Robson came back on that one. "Maybe I've been away too long to fully understand the rules," he said, "but it's something to think about." Not from where I was sitting. Six and two threes as they say, Shearer sinning as much as he was sinned against. Who cared, anyway?

Arsenal: (4-2-4): Seaman; Luzhny, Keown (Upson, 65), Adams, Winterburn, Ljungberg, Vieira, Grimandi, Silvinho (Overmars, 60), Henry (Bergkamp, 46), Suker. Substitutes not used: Manninger (gk), Kanu.

Newcastle United: (3-5-2); Karelse; Dabizas, Domi, Marcelino, Pistone, Solano (Ferguson, 90), Speed, Domi, Gallagher, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Maric, Charvet, Perez (gk).

Bookings: Arsenal: Keown. Newcastle: Dabizas, Lee.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Man of the match: Dumas.

Attendance: 38,106.