Wenger toasts team spirit

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The Independent Online
Systems, tactics, formations... in the end it is all about players. And managers.

Arsenal's 2-1 victory at Newcastle on Saturday underlined this. Reduced to 10 men after 22 minutes, they showed the twin virtues of organisation and team spirit. Allied to talent and experience, which the new Premiership leaders have in abundance, it made a potent enough combination to defeat a strangely subdued Newcastle side.

Afterwards Kevin Keegan railed, with some justification, against his players. "We got what we deserved, nothing. We were poor throughout. Everyone has to take a share of the blame. It would not take many more performances like that to [persuade me to] change the personnel."

But it is not as simple as that. Keegan has to look at himself too. Given Keegan's own passion, and that of his adopted city, it seems surprising that his team were unable to match Arsenal's heart. Newcastle have shown this season that they have a measure of steel, but it does not run through the team as it does Arsenal.

"I was pessimistic, then I saw the team at half-time. They did not want to give it up," said Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's coach. "It showed the legendary spirit of our team."

Team spirit is both intrinsic and created. Spontaneous pranks and carefully orchestrated games can each play a part but it comes down to individuals. There may be some Arsenal players you would not want as a son-in-law, but there are very few you would not want in your team.

Unusually, for such a long established and close-knit unit, they have been very receptive to Wenger's new ideas. Diet, calisthetics and a new philosophy have all been taken on board without diluting the "no-one likes us - sod 'em" ethos of the George Graham era. "The players are happy together, it was a great collective performance," Wenger added.

Newcastle seem more a collection of parts than a collective. David Batty, Alan Shearer, Robert Lee and Peter Beardsley would run all day for a Sunday morning team but some of their team-mates will not even do so for a potential championship side. David Ginola is something of a predictable target but he is probably the worst example, though Faustino Asprilla runs him close.

This is not to suggest all foreign players are lazy - Gianluca Vialli and Arsenal's own Partrick Vieira soon come to mind as counter-arguments - but a high proportion seem more mercenary than missionary.

Asprilla was taken off at half-time on Saturday after an animated touchline row with Keegan. "Was it a tactical change?" was a question gently floated towards Keegan afterwards. "Yes. I wanted to bring on someone who might do something," said Keegan brusquely. Keegan then criticised his team's lack of inventiveness - which is one quality Asprilla does have. Asprilla should beware - John Beresford's Newcastle career has never recovered from his touchline dispute.

Ginola appears to retain Keegan's support but one wonders how many teams have won titles with players who only want to work when it suits them. The Frenchman was part of an interesting sub-plot on Saturday. He and Lee Dixon were billed as occupying the same wing-back role, yet you could hardly find two more contrasting footballers.

Dixon, a good but unexceptional player, has made the most of his talent, composure and enduring athleticism to become the most consistent right- back of the last decade. Ginola, though blessed with the talent of the gods, is cursed with capricious form and an immature temperament. Their contest was given an added edge by the memory of their encounter in January which ended with an incensed Ginola being dismissed after reacting to Dixon's niggling attentions.

Dixon was booed from the off but, within 10 minutes, had his reply. Paul Merson and John Hartson released Ian Wright on the left. The middleweight forward bumped heavyweight Darren Peacock to the turf before crossing. Running in were Dixon and Ginola. Ginola stopped, Dixon ran on to score with a diving header. Both raised their arms, one in celebration, the other in an admission of guilt.

Ten minutes later Ginola gained revenge as his cross looped off Dixon's back for Alan Shearer to head an equaliser. Then Shearer ran on to Batty's hopeful pass and tumbled to the ground under challenge from Tony Adams. Graham Barber looked to his assistant linesman, gave a free-kick outside the box and dismissed Adams. A grievous error. That the challenge looked 50-50 should not even have been relevant, Batty's pass has gone through the legs of a clearly offside Asprilla - Adams even had to run around him.

Arsenal re-organised, the contest on the flank resumed. Arsenal, thanks to a slightly fortuitous, but richly deserved and expertly taken goal from Wright won. So did Dixon. Whenever he went forward it was Peter Beardsley, not Ginola, who intervened. Whenever Ginola went forward, Dixon checked him and forced an early cross.

Which was odd because the one occasion Ginola went for the byline, after 42 minutes, he teased Dixon into a foul that earned a booking. One would have thought it would be worth another attempt.

Ginola's fragile psyche took a further knock when he was warned for diving - though for once Barber eschewed the book. Dixon's bruises were physical, Beardsley's careless but unintended foul briefly forcing him off and Arsenal down to nine. They remained undaunted.

No Adams. No David Seaman. No Dennis Bergkamp. Three points at the leaders. It was some result.

"This team is harder to beat than either of the championship teams I played in," said the excellent Merson afterwards. "Wrighty's on fire but he's not the only one scoring goals. The defence keep getting hammered for their age, but are still the best around. Now we've two home games in a week. Some people say they would rather be tucked in the pack but I know where I would rather be. On top."

Arsenal were generously clapped off by the home support at the end. "The last time that happened," mused Merson afterwards, "was at Everton seven years ago. We went on to win the championship."

Dixon scored in that game too.

Goals: Dixon (11) 0-1; Shearer (21) 1-1; Wright (59) 1-2.

Newcastle United (3-5-2): Srnicek; Peacock, Albert, Elliott; Gillespie, Lee (Watson, 77), Batty, Beardsley, Ginola; Asprilla (Kitson h-t), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Beresford, Clark, Hislop (gk).

Arsenal (3-4-1-2): Lukic; Keown (Morrow, 75), Adams, Bould; Dixon, Vieira, Platt, Winterburn; Merson (Parlour, 83); Hartson (Linighan, 30), Wright. Substitutes not used: Shaw, Bartram (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Woking).

Bookings: Newcastle United: Peacock, Lee, Beardsley. Arsenal: Platt, Wright, Dixon, Keown, Merson. Sending off: Adams.

Man of the match: Wright.

Attendance: 36,565.