Football: Doubts beset Newcastle

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The Independent Online
Kevin Keegan bore the look of a man who had paused outside the door, taken a deep breath, and put on his "it's all under control face" before entering the Highbury press room. His team were about to be accused, again, of lacking the nerve to be champions. He was not going to allow the same to be said of him.

Keegan's subsequent performance was considerably better than the one Newcastle United produced in losing 2-0 to Arsenal on Saturday. Unlike his team, he appeared relaxed and controlled, but you sensed it was something of an effort.

These are tough days for Keegan. He is regarded as an inspirer of men, not a deviser of tactics. The technical adjustments he has made this season - the introduction of a third central defender, the withdrawal of the right-winger - have not been successful. He deploys his substitutes sparingly and changes little during a match. Management, for Keegan, seems a case of finding and buying good players and giving them the freedom and the inspiration to play.

The result has been a side which has lit up the Premiership. They would be worthy winners. Their football, and their approach, has been a delight. That is not to suggest Manchester United or Liverpool are negative, but they do not play with the same abandon.

But therein lies the rub. It is all very well playing off the cuff, blinding your opponents with trickery and panache but, when things go wrong, there is nothing to fall back on.

At home, this is not a problem, Newcastle still feel impregnable, Manchester United may have won at St James' Park, but only after they were overrun. Away from home, doubt has infected Newcastle, tightening mind and muscle. Imaginative, risk-taking players need confidence to thrive. On Saturday, it began draining away after just two minutes, when Scott Marshall scored from a typical Arsenal set-piece, Martin Keown flicking on a near-post corner. Despondency set in and Newcastle looked a beaten side well before the end.

"As the game went on, there was an inevitability about the result," said Keown, a commanding figure in Arsenal's reworked defence.

"We never looked like getting a result," Keegan admitted. "I was disappointed in some of the players, a lot of them are capable of giving far more. One or two of them were a bit uptight out there."

Keegan was not happy with the defending, but it was the five forward players he picked out first, adding: "In the second half, when we controlled much of the game, we created very little."

This begged the question: why not play, or at least introduce, Keith Gillespie? Newcastle's form, and Les Ferdinand's goalscoring, has suffered from his absence, first through injury, then through non-selection.

Newcastle won 18 and lost two of 23 matches before Gillespie's injury, they have won six and lost four of 13 since. All but five of Ferdinand's 26 goals came with Gillespie on the flank.

Without him, the balance is missing and the crosses have dried up. At one point on Saturday, Faustino Asprilla curled the ball out to the right wing, only to see it drift into touch with no one near. He turned and berated the unfortunate Warren Barton who, moments earlier, had been involved in defensive duties. Peter Beardsley is nominally filling in wide on the right, but seems uncomfortable. On Saturday, he only made an impact when he moved inside.

"I felt we had the players out there to carve something out without bringing Gillespie on," Keegan said. "But three or four players will look at that performance and think: `I should be in that side'. Gillespie might be one of them. But I do not think he is fully fit.

"On that performance, you could say it is hard to accommodate both Bearsley and Asprilla but, if you analysed the West Ham game and the first half against Manchester United, you would not say that."

The difference is that those matches were at St James' Park. Keegan said: "You are not going to win the championship just at home, but our away record stands up to anyone." Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal excepted.

When told Manchester United were now the favourites, Keegan said : "We've still go to go to Liverpool, Blackburn and Leeds. We have got to pick up points away from home. I would not argue with the bookies."

For Arsenal, the game was a great success, but with a sting. For a half they played neat, adventurous football. Their own three centre-back system formed the platform for the 17th-minute second goal which was created by the persistance and poise of Nigel Winterburn at left wing-back.

Its scorer, inevitably, was Ian Wright, whose 142nd goal for the club underlined the dilemma of Arsenal fans. Bruce Rioch is developing an attractive team which, with some strengthening, could challenge for the title. But he also appears to have fallen out with Wright, the Highbury hero. Who should the faithful back?

They will hope for a reconciliation, and so might Rioch. While Keegan got away with selling Andy Cole, it is hard to believe Wright would so helpfully lose his touch if he left Highbury. He seems able to score goals whatever the system and whoever his team-mates.

Goals: Marshall (3) 1-0; Wright (17) 2-0.

Arsenal (3-4-1-2): Seaman; Keown, Linighan, Marshall; Dixon, Merson, Platt, Winterburn (Helder, 90); Bergkamp; Wright (Parlour, 40), Hartson. Substitute not used: Hillier.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Barton (Watson, 60), Howey, Albert, Beresford; Beardsley, Lee, Batty, Ginola; Asprilla, Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Peacock, Gillespie.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

Bookings: Arsenal: Bergkamp, Keown. Newcastle: Batty, Barton, Albert, Beresford, Beardsley.

Man of the match: Keown. Attendance: 38,271.