Wenger's team just one stride from gaining complete control

James Lawton
Saturday 15 March 2003 01:00
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Though the killer instinct deserted them in another important match, and their reputed hard man, Martin Keown, gave us a further offering from his nauseating repertoire of ersatz agony, the sense that Arsenal have finally supplanted Manchester United as England's top team grows ever stronger.

After last year's double, and United's recent falterings, such an impression is inevitable. But is it right?

Can United, irresolute in their Worthington Cup final defeat by Liverpool and now staring down the barrel of Arsenal's five-point Premiership lead, resurrect enough of their old élan and arrogance to turn things around? Possibly yes, probably not; but if they do fail to do so, still another question announces itself. If Arsenal are the best in England, do they really have the potency which enabled United to pull off their historic treble, including the European Cup, four years ago?

The evidence of this week's failure to punish 10-man Lazio in Champions' League action at Highbury was certainly not encouraging. Arsenal are of course weaving wonderful patterns and they certainly have a hard-headed convert in Graeme Souness, manager of today's opponents, Blackburn. Souness says: "Arsenal are by far the best team in England now – United were dominant for 12 years, but Arsenal are setting the benchmark now, and everyone is looking at them and saying they are the number ones, including me."

Souness, from an unimpeachable critical base, also singles out Patrick Vieira as the most influential midfielder in the land, an honour he would have had him share with United's Roy Keane but for the still plainly visible effects of serious injury on the Irishman. Souness, as few midfielders before or since, knew how to dispense both finesse and a touch of steel, and when he gives the nod to the big Frenchman it is not so much the handing of a compliment as the passing of a baton.

However, Vieira's handling of it is still far from flawless, at least in a tactical sense.

The failure to beat Lazio, after the Italian star Francesco Totti was suckered into a sending off by the wretched, play-acting Keown, surely highlighted a flaw which has surfaced notably in recent big games against Liverpool and Newcastle and in last weekend's Cup tie with Chelsea. It is that inability to successfully negotiate the ground between the kind of crushing that was given to Manchester City at Maine Road a few weeks ago, and the controlled exploitation of a narrower advantage in those games when the sheer virtuosity of such as Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp has not completely undermined the opposition.

What Arsenal have yet to acquire – and the deficiency shows up most strikingly in their European record – is the knack of shutting tight their own backdoor while keeping that of their opposition at least slightly ajar. Arsenal, for a putative super team, still split too much of their time between the high ground of spectacular performance and the marshland of lost opportunity. In between is the well-trodden terrain of the practised winners – the 1-0 victory, the performance that says, 'Well, we haven't lit up the sky, we haven't nailed down the advantage, but we have our nose in front and that's where it is going to stay'.

Arsène Wenger, perhaps out of psychological necessity, continually stresses the squandering of chances, but it is only half the story. If Henry and Bergkamp took all their chances, this second half of the Premiership season would already be deep into exhibition mode. If Henry were better in the air, if he didn't seem to drop a gear the moment he produces some move of searing luminosity, he would some time ago have made a formality of any discussion about who is the world's best player. But it is rare to get a perfect player, and even rarer to have a perfect team. Given the quality of so much of Arsenal's play, it is probably just as well from the perspective of Premiership competition. If pure talent were the only criterion, Sir Alex Ferguson would already know his fate – and he wouldn't be happy.

As it is, we can only guess at the extent of his frustration. The flying boot incident painted a picture far more informative than a thousand words. So, at a late hour, does the detail of David Beckham's journey to the club's Carrington training ground that following Monday morning. Normally, Beckham's security man takes him on a route that by-passes the main gates where the fans and the paparazzi huddle. On this occasion he pulled up at the main entrance, the Alice-band carefully in place to prevent any of his locks obscuring a clean shot of his eye 'wound'. With Beckham inviting the Daily Mail to speculate on whether or not he was a girl's blouse, and with Keane, missing through injury along with Juan Sebastian Veron for today's game at Villa Park, still some way from his old warrior status, Ferguson must envy Wenger his sense of a team charged with authentic commitment.

That was so much of a key to the 12-year United dominance – that, and a deeper, more talented squad than any of their rivals. United at their best also had a wonderful simplicity of purpose; their instinct for putting away a beaten rival was peerless in the domestic game. Now Arsenal must develop a similar cutting edge or, in its absence, a greater level of control when they win an advantage. It is the last stride they have to make before persuading even Ferguson that the old fire has finally burned away.

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