Football: Gunners draw on invention

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As Paul Merson went to leave Highbury on Saturday night, he was asked: "What are you giving up for New Year, Paul?" He replied: "Nothing. I've got nothing left to give up."

Judging by Saturday's performance, abstinence makes the heart grow stronger. Merson's was one of several excellent Arsenal performances as they produced one of the best 45 minutes of football the Premiership has seen this season. Merson went on to score a stunning individual goal deep in the second period. Unfortunately for Arsenal's title ambitions, not all his team- mates could match his style and stamina, and Aston Villa recovered to draw 2-2.

Highbury still acclaimed a pulsating afternoon's entertainment, their pleasure topped off with the news from St James' Park. Like many a chairman at this time of year, Gunners' fans left thinking what a difference a change of management can make.

Without meaning to be flippant about Merson's problems, the way Arsenal played two years ago was enough to drive anyone to drink. True, there was a gleaming silverware collection in the boardroom but the cobwebs were gathering in the section reserved for championship trophies.

Now the football is inventive and the title is back on the agenda. "It'll be nice to watch tomorrow's game [Southampton v Liverpool] knowing we have a stake in the result," Merson said. "It's great to be back in it; it's been a few years."

It is not just the supporters that are enjoying the new Arsenal; the players clearly relish it too. "Arsene Wenger's brilliant," Merson added. " I can see how he inspired Glenn Hoddle to become a manager. I always said I would not want to manage but now I'd love to get into it. He's so positive, he gets the best from everybody.

"His ideas are so good. Even running is done with the ball, we never used to do that, just run for three hours."

To an outsider it seems blindingly obvious that footballers should practice as much as possible with a ball at their feet, but British football, at heart, is deeply conservative. Not enough of our coaches have looked overseas for inspiration.

Cricket is already awash with foreign (Australian) coaches, as is rugby league, and union is beginning to follow. As linguistic and cultural differences are greater in football, Wenger's success is especially welcome, and it will be interesting to see how Sven Goran Eriksson fares at Blackburn.

A feature of Wenger's Gunners is the previously unimagined sight of Tony Adams and Steve Bould on the overlap. "I'm pushing into areas I only used to visit at dead-ball kicks," Adams said before the game. "I love it when the crowd sing `Tony Adams on the wing'."

It is a mark of Adams's largely unrealised potential as a footballer - rather than being just a defender - that once you have got over the shock of seeing him moving forward he does not look much out of place.

"They have been let loose," Merson said, "and it has worked. It can be hard to pick up defenders when they break from the back."

Their excursions failed to bring a goal yesterday but Merson's strike owed something to a defensive break. Steve Morrow, a defensive midfield substitute, carried the ball 40 yards after a Villa attack faltered. He then fed Merson, who drifted past Steve Staunton and Riccardo Scimeca before lashing the ball past Mark Bosnich from 25 yards.

It was a good enough goal to win any game but it failed to win this one. Within 21 seconds of re-starting Savo Milosevic beat Adams and released Dwight Yorke to equalise. Now that never happened in George Graham's day.

Arsenal had inevitably gone ahead through Ian Wright, who glided between Villa's three-man defence to run on to a sublime pass from Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman then produced a dazzling piece of skill to beat Fernando Nelson before setting up Wright again. He rounded Bosnich but Scimeca cleared off the line.

That was the best of a litany of Arsenal chances to secure the game. With Patrick Vieira outstanding and Bergkamp, Merson and Wright bewitching, they should have been four up by the hour. Instead, on 68 minutes Milosevic punished them with an expertly taken volley. He and Yorke sometimes look as if they only met in the warm-up, yet the young Serb scored one and made one.

Villa, having been even worse in the first half than they had been at home to Chelsea, thus gained a point. They stay in the hunt, though their chances are slim unless Yorke's sense of urgency spreads throughout the side and the pretty-pretty midfield returns to passing accurately and incisively.

Both sides now face difficult periods. Villa meet Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool in quick succession. Arsenal, without a win in four games, must cope without 22-goal Wright in coming games, and their strength in depth is weaker than most of the contenders - the absent David Seaman and Lee Dixon are already being missed. Fortunately they now meet Middlesbrough at home while Wright is still available. The rest of the top six have yet to visit Highbury.

Wenger, like Brian Little beforehand, suggested a number of clubs could win the title. Merson was less circumspect.

"Can you win it?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied, adding: "Everyone will be dropping points... though it is a bit concerning that Manchester United keep winning.

"If we don't, I'd love Wimbledon to. The name of the game is who bounces back quickest when they lose. To win at Everton was a great result."

Goals: Wright (13) 1-0; Milosevic (68) 1-1; Merson (74) 2-1; Yorke (75) 2-2.

Arsenal (3-5-1-1): Lukic; Keown, Adams, Bould; Parlour, Garde (Morrow, 67), Vieira, Merson, Winterburn; Bergkamp; Wright. Substitutes not used: Bartram (gk), Linighan, Hartson, Shaw.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu; Staunton, Scimeca; Nelson, Taylor, Draper (Johnson, 87), Townsend, Wright; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Joachim, Tiler, Curcic.

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees). Bookings: Villa: Ehiogu, Staunton, Yorke.

Man of the match: Vieira. Attendance: 38,130.