Football: Lapses frustrate Graham's; damage limitation exercise

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The Independent Online
The Leeds manager returned to Highbury with a plan. He explained afterwards why it did not work.

No manager can budget for moments of inspiration, not even George Graham whose organisational skills were stamped on a determined if negative effort that looked like thwarting Arsenal until Marc Overmars scored a quite stunning goal.

Yes, Overmars the player Graham most wanted when still in charge at Highbury - "Did I try to get him for Leeds? You must be joking, we don't have that sort of money" - but so often disappointing in Arsenal's colours.

Does the serious injury Overmars had when turning out for Ajax explain why he did not follow Louis Van Gaal to Barcelona? Did Van Gaal think less of him than people imagined?

The Dutchman's goals brought Saturday's 2-1 victory but Arsenal are still waiting for consistent proof that they invested wisely. "Overmars has done some very good things this season," Wenger said, "things that people may not have noticed."

But until Overmars took Emmanuel Petit's pass to put Arsenal ahead in the 60th minute with a fiercely struck swerving shot that was too much even for a goalkeeper of Nigel Martyn's quality, the audience had not seen much to suggest that he is a special player.

Thus Graham found the outcome frustrating. Fully aware of his team's limitations -"we are still need three or four players and I don't want to rush the outstanding youngsters who are coming through," he said when we spoke yesterday - Graham set out to frustrate his old club with smothering tactics.

Trouble was that one slip, a lapse of concentration might be exploited by the outstanding individuals Arsenal have available. "There was no point in supposing that we could match Arsenal for quality so the object was to try and keep Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright as quiet as possible and take advantage of any opportunities that came our way," Graham added.

Easier said than done, the policy foundered on chances that Rod Wallace and Ian Bowyer squandered in the first half, a renewal of Arsenal's spirit and Overmars's sudden awakening. "Until Overmars scored I don't remember him doing very much at all," Graham said. "In fact our right back Alan Maybury, who is only 19, had done very well against him. But I with the players Arsenal have they are always capable of something special."

With almost an hour gone Graham was satisfied with the way things were proceeding. "The crowd were very quiet and you could sense their frustration," he said. "Overmars's goal changed things. I sent on Jimmy Hasselbaink who equalised. Then he gives the ball away and Bergkamp puts Overmars in for his second goal. Not that we played well enough to deserve any better. We didn't pass the ball well enough and it never stayed long enough with the front players to give our defenders relief from Arsenal's pressure."

A problem for managers in the Premier League is getting foreign players to recognise the demands of English football. Some adapt more quickly than others. For example, Arsenal's second goal resulted from Hasselbaink's failure to realise that English defenders make a habit of contesting possession.

At times this season Arsene Wenger has referred to "fighting football". This has come across in the form of a complaint as though his players are not being allowed to fully express themselves. The impression has been that Wenger too has found difficulties in adjustment personally. In any case it appears that meetings have been held at Highbury to establish the need for strength and application when things are not going entirely to the manager's satisfaction.

The results were pretty evident on Saturday in Arsenal's willingness to match fire with fire when necessary. "I think a number of the players in our squad have found that the game in England is a lot different from what they have been used to," Wenger said, "and I have had to alter some of my thinking. Referees are more lenient then they are abroad so the game is much more physical."

Interestingly, when Wenger watches football overseas now he has to concentrate. Having grown used to an intense style of play he finds his attention wandering.

When this was repeated Graham he chuckled. "When you sign players from abroad you can never be absolutely sure what you are getting," he said. "There is always a bit of doubt at the back of your mind because you simply don't how well they will cope with our way of playing."

Not that Graham will consider turning his thoughts to players in the lower leagues of English football. "Not only are the fees ridiculous but there isn't very much out there," he said. "Times have changed since I was able to pick up players like Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and Alan Smith for Arsenal. Fortunately we have some terrific youngsters coming through and that has got to be the future for Leeds. We just can't afford to go into the market in a big way."

A week seldom passes when Graham does not sit his players down and stress the reasons why Leeds are having a pretty good season. "I tell them that without the effort they have been persuaded to put in we might be struggling. On Saturday we made life difficult for one of the best teams in the Premier League and could well have held them. For the time being that is where we have got to be coming from."

When Leeds drew at home with Arsenal on the opening day of the season Graham forecast that his old club would be in contention for the championship. No longer. On Saturday he saw David Seaman punting the ball 60 yards up field. That made him chuckle too. So much for finesse.

Goals: Overmars (60) 1-0; Hasselbaink (69) 1-1; Overmars (72) 2-1.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Bould, Winterburn, Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Bergkamp, Wright. Substitutes not used: Anelka, Manninger (gk), Grimandi, Boa Morte, Hughes.

Leeds United (4-4-1-1): Martyn; Maybury, Wetherall, Radebe, Halle, Kelly, Bowyer (Hasselbaink, 53), Haland (Molenaar, 21), Ribeiro, Kewell, Wallace (Lilley, 88,). Substitutes not used: Beeney (gk), Harte.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Booked: Leeds: Halle, Maybury.

Man of the match: Petit.

Attendance: 38,018.