Rioch's wind of change proves only a gentle breeze

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The Independent Online
PHIL SHAW

Arsenal 2 Aston Villa 0

In his temporary incarnation as a radio pundit, George Graham has so far visited Highbury less often than a rabid Tottenham fan. Which is a shame, for it would be fascinating to hear his opinion of the "new" Arsenal, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the version Graham built and lost.

The wind of change which supposedly blew through the marble halls during the summer was, on the evidence of their victory over Villa, no more than a warm breeze. If Arsenal hoped to reinvent themselves as a charismatic force by head-hunting Bruce Rioch and letting him spend pounds 12m on Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, they have not succeeded.

Lest that outrages the true believers, it should be added that at their peak of five years ago, Graham's Gunners no more fitted the "boring" stereotype than Rioch's team are the cavaliers some are keen to proclaim them. On Saturday, the similarities were more apparent than the differences; unsurprising given that only one of the home 14, Bergkamp, was signed by the new manager.

The keeper and the back four were identical to when the championship was won in '91, though the full-backs drove forward less. Rioch's midfield featured the kind of pairing for which his predecessor was vilified, Ray Parlour and Martin Keown, and even David Platt's return would not provide the creativity Arsenal still lack.

Glenn Helder donned Anders Limpar's mercurial mantle, playing a part in both goals in an otherwise fitful display. Up front, Ian Wright's partnership with Bergkamp looked equal to the one he enjoyed with Alan Smith, if only superficially.

Bergkamp's input was not that of a pounds 7.5m player. Ugo Ehiogu's marking, as rigorous as in last year's Uefa Cup tie with Internazionale, revived doubts as to whether the Dutchman's languid style is suited to an out- and-out striker's role. Were he to drop deeper, however, he might duplicate Platt, who is shortly to test his recovery in the reserves, and Brian Little's tactics would scarcely have allowed him any more room there.

Villa, who invariably had six men across midfield and nine behind the ball, had no ambition beyond avoiding defeat. Equally, for most of the first half, Arsenal had no idea how to find a way through. Yet their confidence did not dip, an improvement for which Rioch can take credit, while a crowd who may have become restless last winter roared encouragement.

Their reward, when it came, confirmed that the Goalkeepers' Union must have voted to help Paul Merson's rehabilitation. The previous weekend, Leeds' John Lukic allowed the author of Rock Bottom to show he still has a nose for goal. This time Mark Bosnich's elementary error gifted Merson his second of the season.

Plan A scuppered, Villa resorted to a ragged alternative, though there was also an element of fortune about the goal that finished them off. Wright's miskick, following Bergkamp's misdirected effort, trickled in off the head of the prostrate Ehiogu in a manner that reminded one of why they have also been called "Lucky Arsenal".

Rioch preferred the word "patient". No team of his would go "throwing themselves forward" - and when he derided such an approach as "Charge of the Light Brigade stuff", it could have been George Graham talking.

Goals: Merson (47) 1-0; Wright (78) 2-0.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Merson, Parlour, Keown, Helder; Bergkamp, I Wright. Substitutes not used: Hartson, Jensen, Bartram (gk).

Aston Villa (5-4-1): Bosnich; Charles, Ehiogu, McGrath (Fenton, 83), Southgate, A Wright; Taylor, Draper (Milosevic, 62), Townsend, Staunton (Johnson, 62); Yorke.

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

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