James Lawton: Arsenal unmasked as half a team by interlocking Inter

Gunners fail to grasp that defence and attack are equally important for success in Europe

Arsene Wenger says that it might have been different if Thierry Henry had knocked in the penalty. Or if Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord had taken the right options in the first 15 minutes.

He also says the three-goal margin was an overly extravagant statement on the gap separating Internazionale and Arsenal. There really wasn't much between the teams, he adds. All you can say, reasonably, is dream on, Arsène.

Sexing up reality just isn't in it. This is an orgy of self-delusion. What Wenger and his Premiership colleagues - and all those who fantasise about England ever again winning a major tournament - have to face up to is that in Europe they play a different, superior game and that, after a fallow run, the Italians are back at the peak of it.

This wasn't a defeat for the Gunners, it was a ravaging, an undressing, a crushing statement that the team we revere here for the beauty of their attack and the grace notes of a Pires - when he isn't cheating - and an Henry, are really playing only half a game.

Euphemisms were on flood tide during the television commentary and analysis by Graeme Souness and Ray Wilkins. What nobody seems prepared to say is that if, at least in terms of expression, Arsenal are the flower of our game at the highest level, where there is an obligation to defend with the same skill and science that is applied to attack, there is something badly wrong with our competitive roots.

When it mattered in the Champions' League last season both Manchester United, who again look so much better equipped than their London rivals for the demands of the big stage, and their conquerors, Real Madrid, were undermined by their failure to defend properly against opponents of the highest class. It means that even as matters appear to be going so swimmingly for the masters of Spain, the result from Highbury must still send a chilling message to a club who have just acquired the ball-striking and shirt-selling skills of a David Beckham while giving up the ball-winning proficiency of Claude Makelele.

The presumption here always seems to be that attack has to come at the expense of defence, and that the two things will not, in great teams, always be two sides of the same valuable coin. The Italians have never lost sight of the fact that defence and attack is not a matter of either/or. It simply a requirement to look at the whole picture.

This was the perfection of the performance of Hector Cuper's team. The Argentinian, who twice took Valencia to the European Cup final, has been under fierce pressure at San Siro because his record last season was merely to finish runners-up in Serie A and lose a European Cup semi-final on the away-goals rule applied to the stadium Internazionale share with the winners and eventual champions of Europe, Milan.

However, the Internazionale president, Massimo Moratti, refused to bow to those members of the mob who were no doubt exultant at Highbury this week. He said: "I believe in Cuper and I get support from his results. He has shown that he can maintain excellent competitive levels and he can do it with skill and dignity. We will go again next season and perhaps along the way we will find ourselves in the dock. But why change everything now? We have established the possibility of winning. Sometimes in football the most important thing of all is faith."

Yes, faith in a football man - and faith, based on knowledge and a sense of the game's history, in a certain way of playing the game.

Wenger talked of Arsenal's psychological problems on the European front, and the baggage of their dreadful record in the Champions' League is becoming heavy indeed. But even those of us who have long questioned the psyche of a team which so often betray their brilliant gifts - a problem that was underlined again by the abysmal collapse at the end of last season - could not reach for that as an explanation for Wednesday's débâcle.

Indeed, the Arsenal morale looked buoyant enough in that early phase when Henry, particularly, flowed down on an Italian defence magnificently buttressed by the central defenders, Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi. The problem wasn't a shaky spirit but inadequate defence.

Quite a bit has been made of the distraction suffered by Sol Campbell because of his father's serious illness. There are no doubt many good pros who would testify that their belief that they could put aside personal problems and concentrate entirely on the task in front of them has been severely compromised in the heat of action. In this Campbell was quite possibly another honourable victim of circumstances, but it doesn't begin to explain the overall confusion at Arsenal's rear.

Internazionale operated on an entirely different and higher level of defensive composure and organisation, and at no cost to their ability to strike at Arsenal with deadly effect. Their front men, Obafemi Martins and Julio Cruz, undermined Arsenal with almost their every touch of the ball, and out on their right Andy van der Meyde further exposed the wretchedness of Ashley Cole's positional sense.

Those were the mechanics of Arsenal's shocking defeat. Behind them, though, was a wider and deeper truth. It was that the Italians, above all their rivals, still believe in and practise the eternal truths of football. Chief among them is that without proper defence you have, in the end, nothing.

Comments