Football: The ugly reality of Arsenal's muscularity: Pole position comes largely from attrition as the Gunners find their range in both domestic cup competitions with long-ball barrage

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PURIST thanksgiving for the renascence of the passing game in the Premier League this season will have been curtailed by Arsenal's historic cup double, which showed the long ball to be alive and kicking, and as difficult as ever to combat.

English football is a broad church, with all creeds welcome, but some are more welcome than others, and the domination of the championship by Manchester United, Aston Villa and Norwich City, who pass the ball rather than kick it, has done more for the cause of progress than Arsenal's up-and-under appropriation of the FA and Coca-Cola Cups.

One of the more agreeable consequences of the FA Cup final replay is that it gave Norwich a place in Europe next season in the Uefa Cup.

Another civic reception in recognition of Arsenal's 2-1 triumph over Sheffield Wednesday on Thursday would make interesting viewing. On recent evidence, John Jensen would upend the mayor, Tony Adams would herd everybody into a line on the top step and David Seaman would dribble the old pot up before booting it over Islington Town Hall.

In fairness, Arsenal deserved to win both cups. Against that must be weighed the way they did it, which was both ugly and regressive. It was attritional, muscular stuff - Wimbledon in red.

George Graham has the percentage game down to a fine art: the offside trap, claustrophobic compression in midfield to deny the opposition space and pace in attack to pursue the long ball over the top. It works - he is the first man to complete a full set of domestic honours as player and manager - but the game would cease to be a spectator sport if everyone embraced the same Spartan methods.

Supporters, by and large, are an undiscriminating lot, who would put up with Giant Haystacks at the back and the Road Runner at centre-forward if it meant winning trophies, and the Highbury hordes greeted their replay success with ironic choruses of 'Boring, boring Arsenal'.

The danger, of course, is that Wednesday, who play lovely football, will be tempted to abandon their principles after losing two finals in quick succession to the arch apostles of the long-ball heresy.

Fortunately, with an aesthete like Trevor Francis in charge, corruption is highly unlikely. Wednesday will continue to play the game the way it was meant to be played - on the floor. It would help, mind, if they had defenders capable of climbing off it. They are too vulnerable when the ball is in the air - witness Andy Linighan's headed winner.

The quality of their play in other phases is such that the recruitment of a commanding centre-half would make them a decent outside bet for the title next season.

Arsenal's price is sure to be shorter, but they will not be burdened with the favouritism a goal-shy team never looked like justifying this time. They will not change much, either in approach or personnel. Martin Keown, another of the centre-halves Graham likes to have in abundance, has been bought to take over from Linighan, and a forward will be needed to replace Anders Limpar, who is on the way out. Otherwise it will be business as usual. A playmaker would be nice, but scrappers staff the Arsenal midfield, and an early move for a Sheridan or a Wilkins is unlikely.

Graham, of course, is under no pressure to change. His chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, describes him as 'the best manager in the history of Arsenal Football Club', and a sculptured likeness has been commissioned to take pride of place in the club's museum.

With it comes not so much a warning as a gentle reminder. Arsenal set their standards high and Hill-Wood says, tongue only partly in cheek: 'We've won two cups, but we haven't had a good season. We've been in and out throughout the year and we haven't scored many goals in the League. Perhaps I shouldn't be too greedy, but I'd love to win the European Cup.' Now there's a thought. The last time they had a shot at that, the long ball came badly unstuck when Benfica came to call.

(Photograph omitted)

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