Football Commentary: Newcastle's purists fall to Graham's power play: Arsenal's graft beats craftsmen

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ARSENAL 2 Naive United 1. It was the sort of match which has the Continentals tuning in avidly. And beating us easily.

Fast and furious from start to finish, it made compulsive viewing, but the result said it all. Newcastle, the team playing the football, lost.

Kevin Keegan's purist principles were no match for Arsenal's power game, and the margin might well have been much wider.

There has been a welcome change of emphasis in the Premiership, with Manchester United and Norwich City leading the crusade for intelligent football, but is is still George Graham's siege Gunners - the team with a goalkeeper for a playmaker - who are given the best chance of catching the runaway express out of Old Trafford.

Graham refused to discuss the 14- point gap separating United and Arsenal, and it is difficult to envisage his side closing it. Good. Were they to do so, it would be a grave disservice to the domestic game, propagating the myth that the archaic virtues of strength and stamina hold the key to international success.

Graham, sadly, is still trotting out the old chauvinistic line which has left us anchored to the foot of world football's First Division. 'We knock our own game,' he said, 'but I'd like to see the Continentals play at that pace.'

Foot down hard on the accelerator and devil take the hindmost. No wonder Britain could resurrect the Home Internationals this summer while the likes of Norway and Greece are off to America. As Mike Walker, Norwich's inspiration, observed last week, no long-ball team have ever won the World Cup.

Newcastle arrived at Highbury full of hope and bright ideas after their acclaimed dismemberment of Liverpool, but Keegan's pleasing, passing team were undermined by a defensive naivety which allowed Arsenal to score twice with identical set-piece routines.

Three times Steve Bould rose unencumbered to flick on near-post corners, and on each occasion Mike Hooper and his attendants were left nonplussed by a ploy so common it has become a cliche. Ian Wright headed in his 22nd goal of the season, Alan Smith nodded home from similarly short range, and the sucker punch would have had a third success had not Wright headed wastefully wide from four yards.

Careless negligence? Keegan was in forgiving mood. 'We don't have too many big lads - unlike Arsenal - so we're always going to be vulnerable at set pieces. I don't mind that too much. I'm a firm believer that if we get the ball down and play, we can cause their tall lads problems in open play.'

Bold stuff. A little too bold. Newcastle cannot afford to be breached so easily if they are to achieve the top-six finish that is Keegan's target. But enough criticism. They are trying to play the way the game was meant to be played, and deserve nothing but praise for that.

Arsenal attack by the shortest route, David Seaman dribbling out of his penalty area before hoofing the ball as far as he can. Newcastle prefer neat passing moves, manoeuvring their way forward through players who interchange like good Europeans.

The head said Arsenal deserved to win, but the heart went out to Newcastle, the football man's friend. The contrast in styles made for an absorbing, end-to-end match, although it was never quite the classic Graham spoke of. 'I thought it was breathtaking,' he gushed. 'Their passing and movement was excellent, and brought the best out of us. You won't see many better games this season.'

The Highbury hordes may not. Others will travel to Manchester United v Norwich next Saturday in hope and confident expectation.

This one had been billed as a duel between Wright and Andy Cole, but as shoot-outs go, it was Billy the Kid versus Mr Magoo. The young gunslinger, over-eager on his return 'home', froze every time he went for the draw.

Wright, much more experienced and nerve-free, won hands down, scoring one, making chances for others and using his searing pace to good effect in all areas.

Keegan was much impressed. 'I said to Andy: 'You've got to look at, and learn from, some of the things Ian does off the ball.' He's a real good footballer, that lad. It's a pity he got to the top so late - he's 30 now - but he should be encouraged by the example of Peter Beardsley, who is still a great player.'

Beardsley, 33 in January, supplied the only goal scored from open play when he fastened on to Cole's through pass to shoot over Seaman from 10 yards. As ever, though, it was his prompting, rather than his finishing, that caught the eye.

Instant control, intelligent movement and shrewd, economical distribution - if there is a better footballer in the country, he does not spring readily to mind. That such a well of talent should have been ignored by England in a drought is just one more indictment of the Taylor years.

The times are a changing, of course, and Keegan made his exit with a teasing thought. 'You might yet see Beardsley and Wright play for England.'

A hint, perhaps, that he was up for the managership, after all? A knowing smile, but no denial this time.

Don Howe, John Lyall, Dave Sexton? The brightest young manager in the country would come as a welcome alternative to the much- mooted flick through the fossils when the Football Association begin their deliberations tomorrow.

Goals: Wright (16) 1-0; Smith (60) 2-0; Beardsley (61) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn; McGoldrick, Jensen, Morrow, Merson; Wright, Smith. Substitutes not used: Davis, Campbell, Miller (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hooper; Watson, Venison, Scott, Elliott (Howey, 59); Clark (Mathie, 59), Lee, Bracewell, Sellars; Cole, Beardsley. Substitute not used: Srnicek (gk).

Referee: A Gunn (South Chailey, Sussex)

(Photograph omitted)

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