Merson masks deficiencies

Arsenal 3 Queen's Park Rangers 0
GLENN MOORE

Arsenal 3 Queen's Park Rangers 0

The scoreline might suggest that Arsenal do not need Dennis Bergkamp. Do not be fooled. Arsenal may have scored three goals without him for the first time but they were like an orchestra without a conductor, only prospering through their opponents' inadequacies.

Arsenal's first victory in six matches, and their first win over Queen's Park Rangers in nine meetings, was badly needed. Bruce Rioch, their manager, admitted as much afterwards. However, he also confessed that as a performance it was "disapointing".

As a Christmas treat it was like unwrapping the latest mechanical toy only to discover that dad had forgotten to buy any batteries. Highbury, as ever, looked magnificent; the day was crisp, the ground packed. But, for an hour, the match was stillborn and the atmosphere flat. In a bold response to suppprters' requests Arsenal have agreed to create a "singing section". They would have had their work cut out to raise a cheer yesterday.

That was until Paul Merson scored a stunning volleyed goal after 61 minutes. Together with Ian Wright's poached 45th minute opener, Merson's strike secured the points and confidence flooded into Arsenal's limbs and their supporters' throats. With six minutes left Merson dribbled around Jurgen Sommer for his second and the transformation seemed complete.

As last impressions are the important ones in football matches, the many junior Gunners would have gone home happy with their seasonal bonus. However, even at 3-0 the entertainment was patchy - witness the 10,000-plus home supporters who left before the end?

Earlier there had been groans at misplaced passes and missed oportunities. While the restoration of Tony Adams steadied the defence after Saturday's mauling by Robbie Fowler the old midfield failings were glaringly obvious.

Even with Bergkamp, Arsenal lack a creative midfielder, without him they lack all imagination. John Jensen has never been more than a fetcher-and- carrier and David Platt, while he lacks the fitness to make his goalscoring box-to-box runs, simply duplicates the Dane.

Merson can create but, for an hour, he appeared to have assumed Glenn Helder's "all-flash-but-no-substance" role. That put the onus on Adrian Clarke, Helder's actual replacement on the left of midfield. Clarke, 21 and making his full debut, responded well. He settled quickly and showed a neat touch and awareness, as well as the enthusiasm and confidence to run at defenders.

Clarke had appeared twice before as substitute, the first time in this fixture last year. That game is remembered for Jensen's solitary goal as an Arsenal player but was more noteworthy for a shambolic home display and a good one by Rangers, who won 3-1.

Were Rangers still as strong, they might have taken advantage of Arsenal's slow start yesterday. However, they have since lost Les Ferdinand up front and the knowledge that conceding one goal could be fatal has caused anxiety elsewhere.

They have decent players, but not enough of them. Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley are way past their best, though Wilkins remains a perceptive passer, and Trevor Sinclair lacks support. He played in a variety of positions, managed Rangers' only shot on target, but only got the better of Arsenal's parsimonious defence once. Kevin Gallen shot over from his 15th-minute cut-back.

Half-an-hour later Jensen won the ball from Wilkins and Gallen, Adams picked it up and fed Paul Dickov on the right. Sommer committed himself to the young Scot's cross but Wright got there first. It was, surprisingly, his first goal from open play in two months.

An overhead kick by Platt soon after the break illustrated Arsenal's reviving mood and, after 61 minutes, Merson swept a crossfield ball to Jensen then set off down the right. QPR, unforgivably, failed to pick him up and, when Jensen crossed from the half-way line, Merson volleyed the bouncing ball past Sommer. His second followed neat interplay by Clarke and Dickov but the latter's pass should have been cut out by Rufus Brevett.

"The goals will help Paul," Rioch said after the match. "He had been suffering a bit in the first half. This time of year, I would imagine, is difficult for him. The best therapy for him is playing well on the football field. He is not the first person I have had to sit down and have a talk with - managers have to put on their Marje Proops hat on a regular basis in football. It is up to me to get the best out of him, as a human being and a player."

Goals: Wright (45) 1-0 ; Merson (61) 2-0; Merson (84) 3-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn; Merson, Jensen, Platt, Clarke; Dickov, Wright. Substitutes not used: Helder, Linighan, Hartson.

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Sommer; Bardsley, Yates, McDonald, Brevett; Sinclair, Barker, Wilkins (Dichio, 75), Impey; Gallen (Holloway, 67), Hateley. Substitute not used: Ready.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Man of the match: Adams (Arsenal) Attendance: 38,259

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