The Nick Townsend Column: The Arsenal status mystery: drama is in danger of becoming a crisis

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The Independent Online

As Anfield cleared on Tuesday night Arsène Wenger bore a similar look to the fellow who tripped down the stairs of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and reduced some valuable Chinese vases to several hundred pieces. Should we feel sympathy for him? Or should we chide him for being so careless as he attempts to reassemble not merely the fragments of this season, but crucially to create something of beauty for the next, when £230 million-worth of pristine new Emirates Stadium beckons?

It was not much more than a year ago - 16 October, after a 3-1 defeat of Aston Villa, to be precise - that we were lauding the purity of Arsenal's play and speaking of the imperious quality of their football. Since their then unbeaten record concluded, they have descended from the Invincibles to the Incontinents, though a leaking of goals has been just one of the problems.

Fifth, or wherever they plummet to ignominiously by the season's end, might satisfy Britain's winter Olympians. It won't do for Arsenal. Attributing their demise to injuries won't either. They are a major club with enviable resources, who can afford to invest £12m in the potential of a 16-year-old. They have a large squad. The problem is that though they are liberally laced with potential, they lack the bedrock of experience required when injuries strike.

Under some Continental regimes, Wenger, notwithstand-ing his outstanding record during nearly a decade as manager of the club, and for all his extraordinary status, would be vulnerable. Obligingly, Tuesday night's Champions' League fixture against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, and the return a fortnight later, will offer him the opportunity to distil some pride from a season in which Tuesday night's defeat by Liverpool must rate as the nadir. Jens Lehmann, muttering darkly as usual at all manner of perceived misdemeanours, performed exceptionally. But fine goalkeeping should be a welcome component of a fine team performance, not the sole cause for applause.

Is there any rationale in the former manager George Graham's notion that the Gunners suffer from a lack of Britons, at a time when Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole are absent? It should not affect morale. But you would not entirely reject the diagnosis. What is becoming increasingly tiresome, and Freddie Ljungberg was chanting the mantra again last week, is the contention that every opposition set out, and succeed, in physically intimidating them. Against Liverpool, it was not robust challenges that accounted for the desperate passing, nor the lack of imagination.

Wenger continues to maintain that is a benign condition, and not persistent or sinister, but increasingly there are doubts not merely surrounding the young contingent, particularly Cesc Fabregas and Matthieu Flamini, who have failed to fulfil expectations, but around the experienced performers:Ljung-berg, Robert Pires, Gilberto. One cannot condemn them outright - they displayed desire. But all appeared stale, and desperately beyond their "best before" date.

As for the captain, whose enthusiasm does not appear absolutely wholehearted, rec-eived wisdom has it that Thierry Henry is set to sign a four-year deal worth £22m. If so, it crowbars some pressure from Wenger, although how such a sum will be received by his team-mates is debatable, despite Fabregas's claim:"I can't imagine the club without him. He's as much a part of the team as the badge on our shirts." Even if the Frenchman stays put, it is disconcerting that such a club can be so dependent on the caprice of one player. He is a charismatic figure, a splendid role model and a divine footballer. But, on balance, it could be seriously argued that it may be preferable to cash in now.

Having lost the one player who, in his own idiosyncratic style, was Monsieur Dependable, Patrick Vieira, Wenger is left with too many whose dedication to the cause seems less than absolute. The future of the tapped-up, but not quite handcuffed, Cole still looks uncertain. And will we ever again witness that Campbell defiance?

Maintaining their Champions' League progress has become all the more imperative. Fabregas describes Arsenal as "a team under reconstruction". Like Wem- bley, though, they are behind schedule. Unlike Wembley, there is nolikelihood that they will be ready by next season.

The other afternoon on TV, they screened The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a wonderful thriller made in 1939, full of policemen with clipped accents investigating a murder. The case was all sorted in little more than 90 minutes. The suspicion is that unravelling the myriad threads of Wenger's drama, Anguish Ahead Of Ashburton Grove, will take considerably longer.

From Pallo to Robben, have a laugh

So, farewell then, Jackie Pallo. Wrestling's pony-tailed, stripy-shorted character was the one the public loved to hate until he spoiled it for everyone by publishing his memoirs in 1985, which detailed, as if we were not already aware, that the whole game was bent. Yet, curiously, to judge by the image of him in the Independent obituaries column last week, it appears that he left behind a son he never knew: Chelsea's winger Arjen Robben, who bears more than a passing resemblance and has evidently inherited his "father's" flair for taking a dive.

Those telly wrestlers back in the Sixties were there to be ridiculed, and should not that really be our approach, too, to today's footballing counterparts? The occasional player hits the turf rather too theatrically, both in play and off the ball. The Robben incident against Liverpool and that of Bolton's El Hadji Diouf when winning a penalty at Blackburn are two that immediately come to mind. Some of England's most admired strikers are not averse to claiming penalties with the minimum of contact, either. But let's keep things in proportion. The dangerous tackle should be much more a proper cause for our concern. The ultimate punishment for cheating, or "simulation" - call it what you will - is, for all the recent furore, surely mockery by one's peers.

Little Britons in favour of O'Neill

The kingmakers in their desperation to prepare a throne for Martin O'Neill, and answer what they see as a public demand for the Ulsterman to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson, assume that a Briton will prove more acceptable than a Swede.

He may well be the right man, and having known him since his Wycombe Wanderers days I would applaud his installation if he is offered and accepts the job. But that would be purely because of the managerial acumen he has displayed; not because he has worked in England for most of his career and hails from an adjacent land. Yet when Dave Richards, one of the FA committee men charged with determining Eriksson's successor, talks about there being "no distinction between British and English", you can just about understand.

This is a strange nation. We (generally) happily co-exist as Britons, even frequently in sporting terms; during the Winter Olympics the public are being enthused by British hopes. But then the nation splits into its component parts for football and rugby World Cups, European Championships and cricket events - and even the lines there are frequently blurred. Certain international sports bodies would be happier if the four nations were a combined entity in tournaments. Rich-ards's comment, and the possible appointment of O'Neill, may just support them.