James Lawton: Arsenal's flaws stop them reaching true levels of greatness

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The Independent Football

How good are Arsenal? Alan Hansen says that they are the most fluid, devastating team the British Isles has ever seen, and you can see easily enough why he might.

Certainly it is hard to recall any rivals to Hansen's mythic crown - the Spurs of Bill Nicholson, the Uniteds of [Sir Matt] Busby and [Sir Alex] Ferguson, the various Liverpools, Brian Clough's double-European Cup winners Nottingham Forest, Don Revie's Leeds at their most eviscerating and Jock Stein's Celtic - ever making the scoring of a goal seem quite so inevitable as do the men of Highbury.

At their best Arsenal not so much humiliate their opponents as bypass them. Their passing is acute to the point of incandescence. Their running is sublime. Henry, Vieira, Pires and Bergkamp achieve extraordinarily dynamic beauty, and those fortunate to share their canvas are inevitably enhanced. Arsène Wenger is utterly entitled to cluck his pleasure at such levels of technical perfection. It is a quality which in all his years of success in England he has never before been able to call upon with such certainty.

So maybe we should ask another question, one that invites a less fawning answer. Let's ask how great are Arsenal? What will all the fluidity and the devastation add up to in the end?

Liverpool's four European Cups? United's two? Forest's brace or even the ones of Aston Villa and Celtic, which was Britain's first and involved the unforgettable disrobing of Helenio Herrera's iron-clad defensive machine of Internazionale in Lisbon in 1967?

Indeed, can we assume they will beat Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final and go on to match their greatest rivals' treble feat of 1999?

We may get a little more of a clue tomorrow night at Highbury when Arsenal have the opportunity to finish off their work against Celta Vigo, whom they lead 3-2, and pass into the final eight of the European Cup for the first time. The point here is that however much we swoon over the kind of football which ransacked Portsmouth in FA Cup action on Sunday, Arsenal do still have quite a few questions to resolve.

These have nothing to do with mere ability. Already this season Arsenal have deepened our sense of their sublime touch. I do not expect to see anything better than the Bergkamp-Vieira strike that brought Chelsea crashing back to earth at Highbury a few weeks ago, and no doubt aficionados could offer a dozen alternatives as Arsenal's goal of a thus far spectacularly triumphant season. But if the quest is indeed for greatness, then it surely cannot be denied that Wenger's men have have some way to go.

What we have at the moment is an exaggerated version of Arsenal's past glory. We still have to be carried beyond the boundaries of great achievement. A whole Premiership season going undefeated would be an impressive mark, no doubt, but perhaps not quite enough to justify the hyperbole of Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp, who declared: "Arsenal are the team of the future; athletes with lightning pace, power, ability and work-rate. They are very similar to the Ajax of the Seventies. They have such movement. They pop up everywhere."

Arsenal have great movement, indeed, but maybe not enough to win three European Cups on the reel, as the Ajax of Johan Cruyff did, at one point beating Bill Shankly's Liverpool 5-0 and earning the growling rebuke: "The most defensive team we've ever played." Arsenal have also been compared to the Milan of Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. It is too much, too soon. Milan won Europeans Cups. They also had the phenomenal defender Franco Baresi and the young Paolo Maldini. They had gone to the peaks of football at a time when the Italian club game represented an ultimate level of competition. Here indeed was a body of work Arsenal are some considerable way from emulating.

Of course they have been encouraged to believe that it is possible and perhaps the levels of performance, and consistency, they are achieving now have sources which are not so mysterious.

Perhaps Arsenal have indeed grown up competitively. Maybe they did take a serious look in the mirror last season after giving up the title race they seemed to be engulfing. Heaven knows, there was due cause. Anyone at Bolton, when Arsenal effectively conceded the title, knows that. It was an ultimate example of both the strength and the weakness of Wenger's team. They moved into a 2-0 lead quite imperiously, Henry creating a goal with a run down the left that told Bolton that conventional defence was futile. And then Arsenal went and threw it all away. No-one was more culpable than than the great Henry. He fiddled on the ball. He was awash with hubris.

Then there was the affair at Old Trafford, the gut-wretching lapse into the manners of an unruly street. There was Martin Keown leaping vengefully above Ruud van Nistelrooy, and a pack of his colleagues pushing and sneering. You couldn't much believe in a team that was capable of such pettiness and distorting angst, and the doubts were only underlined when Wenger mounted one of his classic holding actions in the face of the indefensible.

But the Arsenal directors finally reined Wenger in from the one flaw in his football make-up. They issued a grovelling apology. It was, on reflection, as though something deep and disordered in the Arsenal psyche had been expelled - as though at last they had been stopped and ordered to think.

What fruits this will bear is still far from as certain as some believe. Yes, Hansen is right about the fluidity and the devastation, but to what level will it be stretched? Arsenal, unquestionably, are dazzlingly good. But great? Not yet.

United fans have not heard the last from Magnier

Those who think that Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to withdraw from his fight with John Magnier represents the neat end of an extremely damaging affair are almost certainly kidding themselves.

This seems particularly true of the independent Manchester United supporters' group who appear to have misjudged the extent of their power quite as seriously as their hero.

They objected ferociously to the idea of Magnier busting into their previously secure world of Old Trafford. Now they have the reality check: John Magnier is the chief shareholder of Manchester United, and if it was easy, emotionally speaking, to side with the manager who had created all of the club's recent glory, it was pure folly to believe that Magnier's 99 questions about transfer transactions were so easily swept away by one telephone call from Ferguson.

Ferguson has remade United quite superbly, but his reward could never have been to write his own rules. United is a public limited company. They took on that status as the foundation of a financial empire. Magnier, whatever you think of his style, is not intruding into anybody's playpen. He is looking after his business - something he has always been known to do without quarter. There is no reason to believe he will make an exception here.