Football:Wenger's forces lack directness

Arsenal's failure to claim title has exposed weaknesses in an armoury that needs fortifying. By Ken Jones
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The Independent Online
TO HAVE no tangible reward for so much effort, to be nudged into second place at the last gasp yesterday by Manchester United, could have a more debilitating effect on Arsenal in the immediate future than their downhearted supporters may imagine.

It is not just that victory in the two cup finals that await Manchester United over the next two weeks would completely establish them as the supreme force in English and indeed European football, but the problems Arsene Wenger must overcome if something like parity is to be re-established.

A defence that may have surprised Wenger himself by going on past what would normally be considered superannuated status may soon need replenishment. Also, in squeezing out only a narrow victory over Aston Villa that was not enough in view of events at Old Trafford, Arsenal once again showed the habit of not always being able to crush the life out of stubborn opposition.

For all Dennis Bergkamp's wiles, the electrifying pace of his compatriot Marc Overmars and the extraordinary gifts that make Nwankwo Kanu potentially the most exciting presence in the Premiership, the team might benefit from the inclusion of an attacker who provides a more functional option.

To say that Arsenal this season have sometimes proved too clever for their own good, as they sometimes were against a well-organised and committed Villa, maybe to give Wenger less credit than he deserves for modernising the game at Highbury. There is more general artfulness in Arsenal's play than at any time in their history but often the case can be made for the directness that is probably not in Wenger's nature to encourage.

Without an aerial threat - Kanu's height promises an improvement in that department - Arsenal simply cannot revert to a more direct method when the opposition defends well as Villa did yesterday.

This raises the question of Nicolas Anelka whose frequent expressions of disenchantment with English football and life here may have become more irritating than even Wenger's tolerance is prepared to stomach. While Wenger continues to insist that the young Frenchman is staying it would come as no surprise if he began next season back in his own country.

Arsenal's frustrated efforts in the Champions' League - Bergkamp's fear of flying will be an even bigger factor in next season's extended tournament - indicated a lack of imagination when that quality was critical, and the availability of a player with fewer frills than those Wenger has available.

Like any manager in the circumstances Wenger found himself when confirmation came of United's victory over Tottenham - the news that Spurs had gone ahead in the first half brought Highbury's biggest cheer of the season - he could look back on games that proved costly.

Wenger particularly picked out a defeat at Villa after holding a 2-0 lead and a loss at Wimbledon where Arsenal were unable to overcome Joe Kinnear's team when it was making good progress.

"You are bound to think about these things," he said. "But all in all, the team has performed magnificently. We had a slow start and the World Cup unquestionably affected some of our most important players."

As this was no less of a problem for Manchester United maybe the nature of one or two Arsenal players is more fragile than their splendid defence, with the frontal cover provided by Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit manages to conceal.

Wenger would surely have accepted Arsenal's points total had it been guaranteed at the start of the season and a defensive record remarkable even by the club's highest standards. "Losing the championship so narrowly is like losing a race by a yard," he added. "And, of course, I have left a lot disappointed in our dressing-room."

A pulsating climax to the Premiership that has seen both Arsenal and Manchester United come up against teams who have given their all establishes the integrity of English football. However, it also reveals the lack of consistency elsewhere that saw Villa in disarray against Charlton at home last week but a different proposition in their final match of the season.