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Sep 17, 2009

Arsenal miss that winning feeling

What is the purpose of football? It is a question that can be widely posed, whether by those who remain immune to the game's charms or by some of its most distinguished managers.

It is a question that springs to mind whenever Arsenal lose, as they have done twice within 15 Manchester days. Arsene Wenger has formulated a distinctive and distinguished style of play, identified and developed young players beyond recognition and earned the admiration of peers and public alike. Yet the idea that he is fulfilled by playing a slick brand of football that produces no points is usually defeated by Wenger's demeanour in defeat. There is often, sometimes understandably, a sense of injustice about the Arsenal manager. His critics can find sufficient evidence to deem him a bad loser.

Wenger is one of the sport's romantics, but he is pragmatic enough to be worried about the scoreline. The notion of art for art's sake on a footballing field, the idea that it is better to entertain than succeed, belongs to an extremist branch of idealists, some of whom are adherents of total football. They may occasionally suggest it is better to win ugly than lose beautifully, but what they tend to mean is that their stylish brand of football merits a moral victory. As the former American football coach Vince Lombardi said: "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?"

So if the purpose is to win, the next question is simple: how? This is where Arsenal floundered in comparison with Chelsea and Manchester United on Saturday. Each of the trio was handed an awkward away fixture, whether at the uber-rich Manchester City, the fast-improving Tottenham or the ever-intimidating Stoke. Each conceded the first goal and then drew level. Chelsea and Manchester United duly collected the three points; Arsenal emerged from a game to which they had contributed much with nothing.

It had some similarities with Arsenal's 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. Both matches contained periods when Arsenal were in the ascendant; in both they were denied a penalty. Indeed, on Saturday, Arsenal were unfortunate not be facing ten men after Emmanuel Adebayor stamped on Robin van Persie.

Yet the facts remain that they lost whereas their rivals won. An examination of Chelsea's 2-1 triumph at Stoke shows that they scored in added time in each half, the sort of habit that suggests a side with genuine purpose and a strength of both character and body. The irony that, albeit indirectly, Florent Malouda's decider came after a long throw was coupled with Chelsea's success at repelling Rory Delap's arrows from the touchline. Comebacks are a constant for a side who have trailed in three of their Premier League games; late goals, including Didier Drogba's injury-time winner against Hull, are another regular feature.

And, of course, Chelsea boast considerable experience whereas Arsenal's team invariably contains a sprinkling of ingénues. Except that the notion of experience providing a panacea for all other ills is transparently flawed; a vastly experienced Newcastle team contrived to get relegated last season, just as some similarly seasoned sides had done in previous years. Experience is only a benefit if is applied correctly; years on the clock have less relevance than a knowledge of how to win a game.

It has become a specialist subject for Manchester United. Tactics are often amended for games against Arsenal, and with increasing success in Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial duel where Wenger's lead has been wiped out. Saturday's triumph at Tottenham showed resilience and resourcefulness. Wayne Rooney, for instance, seemed to grow in stature after Paul Scholes' sending-off had reduced United to ten men. His was one of half a dozen outstanding displays: Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were defiant in defence, Darren Fletcher indefatigable in midfield and Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra a left-sided pair who married sprightly attacking with a commitment to close down opponents.

Factor in each of their performances and the oft-heard suggestion that Wenger requires a world-class defensive midfielder should be put in context. That could only benefit Arsenal, but the capacity of a team to excel, the willingness of such maestros as Giggs and Rooney to track back and the mentality required to prosper in a precarious position mean it is not simply a case of venturing into the transfer market.

There is no one way of winning a game. United's three successive titles included a surfeit that were decided before half-time, often by Cristiano Ronaldo's clinical touch. Perhaps the most remarkable of their Premier League crowns came in 1995-96 where, besides Eric Cantona's well-timed and well-taken finishes, they were aided by Peter Schmeichel's remarkable goalkeeping. That remains pertinent now: is Manuel Almunia a reason why Arsenal's exquisite passing does not always produce the results it should? The Spaniard has cast aside his image as the eternal understudy, but it is easier to envisage Shay Given or Jose Reina making match-winning saves.

Now it is simpler to imagine Arsenal mounting an elegant demolition job, as they did when scoring six goals at Goodison Park on the first day of the season, than grinding out an aesthetically unappealing 1-0 win on their travels. In contrast, even an apostle of attacking football such as Ferguson has his Machiavellian moments: the need to prevail ensures as much. And as Manchester United can testify, impressively or unimpressively, fortunately or utterly deservedly, 1-0 or 5-3, winners find any way they can to win.

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