Football: Coach takes Liverpool back to school

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THE GAME was over 30, maybe 45 minutes, and Gerard Houllier was unrepentant. "Two months ago we wouldn't have been able to play as we did today," the Liverpool manager said.

Wouldn't have been able to frustrate Arsenal with a game plan that went against what many imagine to be Houllier's philosophy, wouldn't have survived the siege that called for heroic defending.

Schooling his players in the departmental efficiency that stood out in Liverpool's past domination of English football has been a priority for Houllier since the departure of Roy Evans left him in sole charge of the team. Until that has been achieved to the Frenchman's satisfaction Liverpool are unlikely to travel with thoughts of artistic impression.

Hence the strategy that saw their wing-backs, Vegard Heggem and Steve Harkness, held back and the urgent reminders of defensive responsibility that went out from the touchline to Michael Owen.

If the outcome, a 0-0 draw that raised a chant of "boring Liverpool", left Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, with an attack of post-match blues, he refused to be drawn into criticism of his compatriot's obvious intentions. "It isn't possible to order how the opposition plays," he said, "but we found great difficulty in breaking them down."

Uppermost in Wenger's mind was the discouraging fact that Arsenal's territorial superiority did not lead to one clear opening: Whiplash shots from Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and Ray Parlour but nothing that greatly troubled Liverpool's goalkeeper, David James.

Troubles are again piling up for Wenger, injuries and suspensions putting further strain on a squad that is in urgent need of replenishment. Tony Adams tests his fitness in the reserves today but Steve Bould, who went off after 32 minutes, will probably need a cartilage operation and Patrick Vieira is coming up to a three- match ban.

Add the continuing absence of Dennis Bergkamp and it is no wonder that Wenger wore a hang-dog expression. "I think Dennis would have made a difference," Wenger said dolefully. "Liverpool had so many players back that it needed something special to open them up."

At an age when his form is sure to fluctuate, Nicolas Anelka managed little and once Liverpool put the squeeze on Overmars the best Arsenal could hope for was a lapse in Liverpool's concentration.

The concession of a goal would have forced Liverpool to be more ambitious but the risk in Arsenal's forward momentum was that Owen would be left with space to attack.

Sent clear by Patrik Berger's immaculate through ball, Owen had an opportunity to put Liverpool ahead but not the left foot to take advantage of it, a prod with the outside of his right boot ending up in the side netting.

Houllier insists that the pairing of Owen and Robbie Fowler can be effective enough to offset the disadvantage of being left without an aerial option. "I don't see why it shouldn't work," the Liverpool manager said. "Robbie is good in the air for a smallish man and Michael will get better."

Even so, Liverpool's centres were sent deep, one setting Steve Harkness up for a volley that tested Alex Manninger's reflexes.

Liverpool never again came as close to penetrating Arsenal's defences but not even the loss of Steve Staunton with a groin strain could undermine their resolution.

The signs are that Houllier is getting somewhere with a club that has seen its share of scandal and a breakdown of trust with its supporters. "I think our players have taken on board what we expect of them," Houllier added. "No, it wasn't that difficult, but I repeat, we wouldn't have put up such a fight two months ago."

It had not been difficult to imagine the scene in their dressing-room. Words of praise from Houllier and his assistant Phil Thompson. Back slaps all round. No mention of entertainment.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Bould (Upson,32), Grondin; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars (Garde, 84); Boa Morte, Anelka (Wreh, 87). Substitutes not used: Mendez, Lukic (gk).

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Carragher, Staunton (Matteo, 62), Babb; Heggem, Ince, Redknapp, Berger, Harkness; Fowler, Owen (Riedle, 88). Substitutes not used: McAteer, Thompson, Friedel (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Tring, Herts).

Bookings: Arsenal Keown; Liverpool Babb, Redknapp, Ince.

Man of the match: Petit.

Attendance: 38,107.