Football / Kick-Off '92-93: Arsenal seek blend of science and nature: George Graham's charges are gunning for the first Premier League title. Joe Lovejoy reports on their early favouritism

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ARSENAL are to start the season playing to cardboard cut-outs and pre-recorded crowd noise in an attempt to enliven the building site that is the North Bank.

Not so long ago, when the dummies were on the field, the innovation would have invited more jokes like the one which had Don Howe sitting down for a pre- match meal with his players, and ordering a steak.

'Of course, sir, and what about the vegetables?'

'Oh, they'll have the same.'

No one laughs at Arsenal any more. The bad old days, when Boring Boring was like a double- barrelled Christian name, are long gone, and the most appropriate recorded verse would seem to be 'We're gonna win the League'. The team who have won it twice in the last three seasons are the hottest favourites since Liverpool were in their Paisley pomp.

Last May they finished a modest fourth, a full 10 points behind their successors as champions, Leeds United, since when their only transfer activity of consequence has been the replacement of a pounds 2m midfield player (David Rocastle) with a pounds 1m one (John Jensen).

Why, then, the burden of favouritism? Easy. When harmony was restored six months ago, after some dressing-room foot- stamping, and they all started singing from the same songsheet, as Peter Shreeves would say, Arsenal were still, by some distance, the best team in the country.

While Leeds and Manchester United were staggering for the line, dead beat, the outgoing champions finished full of running, unbeaten for 17 matches. They put seven past the third- placed Sheffield Wednesday, spanked Liverpool 4-0 and, with Ian Wright in the sort of form which should have made him one of the first names on the plane for Sweden, they were easily the most prolific, and attractive, side in the First Division.

Boring Arsenal had become The Great Entertainers - but at a cost. Nettled by criticism of his belt-and-braces attitude to defence (he collects centre-halves as if they are an endangered species), George Graham embraced a more expansive game, featuring as many as five forwards.

The goals came. At both ends. The 1991 championship winners had conceded just 18 - unprecedented parsimony. Last season it was 46. Too many by half.

The most significant factor here was the separation of the first- choice centre-backs, Tony Adams and Steve Bould. Various injuries prevented the twin pillars of the tightest of all defences from playing together on a regular basis until February when, significantly, the renewal of their no-frills partnership coincided with that 17- game unbeaten run.

Injuries are an excuse Graham has no hesitation in proferring, but they were by no means the sole reason for Arsenal's under- achievement last season.

For a time, all was not sweetness and light behind the scenes at Highbury. Having won the title twice, Graham is probably the best manager in the League, but he is a hard - some would say autocratic - taskmaster, and players who cross him tend to become outcasts, left to fester in the reserves.

Such was the fate of Charlie Nicholas, Kenny Sansom and, more recently, Michael Thomas, who fell from favour in a big way last season after having the temerity to refuse a new contract.

The England midfielder, a folk hero after that extraordinary championship winner at Anfield, was restricted to just six starts in the League before he was off-loaded to Liverpool in mid-December.

There was much sympathy for Thomas in the dressing room, particularly from friends like Rocastle, and it may be no coincidence that he, too, has since been sold.

Injuries and feuds undoubtedly detracted from a team whose nadir came with their elimination from the FA Cup by little Wrexham. There was also a suspicion that Graham was embarrassed by his riches in attack, where he struggled to accommodate Wright, Smith, Campbell, Merson and Limpar in the same side.

Smith, a crafty leader of the line, was the principal scorer in the championship teams of 1989 and '91, but Wright prefers the ball played over the top rather than through a target man, and the best results were achieved when Smith was dropped in favour of Campbell, whose explosive power is a better foil for Wright's maverick pace.

Flawed or indecisive selection? Graham prefers to put the hiatus down to the historic difficulty of retaining the title, pointing out that, Liverpool apart, no club has done it since 1959 (Wolves).

'That's how difficult it is,' he says. 'Everybody else tries that bit harder to beat the champions, and maybe your own players relax a little, their appetite satisfied.

'I want to keep the competition for places strong, so they don't relax and think they've done it all. It's no secret that I'm trying to buy new players, and I will keep on trying. I think there has to be new blood to give everybody a lift. Sometimes you just need to change a face or two and that does the trick.

'Some years you come out on top, other years you think you're just as good and you are pipped. That's what happened to us last season. We went 17 games undefeated at the end, and we still couldn't catch Sheffield Wednesday. They kept on winning as well, so although we played really well, scored lots of goals and produced the most exciting football in the six years I've been here, we finished only fourth.

'I'm not saying we should have won something, there's no point thinking that way. It just shows that it is a difficult balance to achieve - to win things playing exciting football.'

Arsenal are better equipped than anyone to strike it, greeting press visitors to Highbury these days with a roster which would be the envy of any manager in the League: Adams, Bould, Campbell, Carter, Davis, Dixon, Groves, Hillier, Jensen, Limpar, Linighan, Lydersen, Merson, Miller,

O'Leary, Parlour, Pates, Seaman, Smith, Winterburn, Wright.

If Graham was to succeed in adding Andy Townsend to that list, the Uniteds, Liverpool and the rest would all be playing for second place.

Townsend and Geoff Thomas are possibilities, but the only newcomer to date is Jensen - the product of a busman's holiday to the European Championship.

Graham went to Sweden with the Danish midfielder already in mind, having charted his progress with Odense. First impressions handsomely reinforced, he had to move fast when Denmark's barnstorming triumph alerted half of Italy, not to mention Nottingham Forest, to Jensen's Trojan qualities.

The new recruit had adapted 'very well', already looking 'like an English player'. What the pride of Denmark made of that dubious compliment is anybody's guess, but he doubtless preferred the subsequent comparison with 'a young Peter Reid'.

Had anyone else taken Graham's fancy in Sweden? 'Not really. I saw some brilliant players, but I was quite surprised how they couldn't cope with three games in one week. I don't think many of them could handle the physical aspect of the English League.'

Unfortunately, not too many of them would want to. The loss is ours.

(Photograph omitted)