GEORGE GRAHAM: Arsenal close to greatness, but need defensive strength

BY JEM MAIDMENT George Graham has urged Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger to strengthen his defence in the summer after their title bid finally collapsed at Old Trafford on Sunday. The Arsenal legend, who led the club to two titles in his nine years as manager at Highbury, says

George Graham has urged Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger to strengthen his defence in the summer after their title bid finally collapsed at Old Trafford on Sunday.

The Arsenal legend, who led the club to two titles in his nine years as manager at Highbury, says the current side are "so, so close to be being there" but need an injection of experience - particularly at the back - in the summer.

"Without question they have to improve defensively," Graham exclusively told Wood&Vale Sport.

And when it comes to clean sheets, the canny Scot should know. He built the now-legendary back four - Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Steve Bould - which was the basis for his success at the club, which culminated in six major honours before his departure in 1995.

He is confident Wenger already has next season on his mind.

"Arsene will look at things in pre-season - in fact, he's probably looking at things now," he continues. His side has played some of the best football ever seen in English football, a true joy.

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"But they must be better collectively when the opposition has possession, it is imperative to work hard, concentrate and be solid when you don't have the ball.

"If they can improve on that, then they are really going to be a top, top team - it's not far off, believe me."

While Graham is reluctant to pick out individuals for criticism, he agrees that the signing of Jonathan Woodgate in the transfer window could have helped the cause - although fully understands why Wenger chose to keep his chequebook shut and allow the Middlesbrough defender to sign for rivals Tottenham.

"I worked with Jonathan when he was a youngster at Leeds and let me tell you he is a very special defender," said Graham, who managed the Yorkshire club between 1996 and 1998.

"He is a class act but someone with his track record of injuries is seen by some as a risk.

"Tottenham went in for him and so far it has been a great signing for the club and a great move for the player.

"But Jonathan needs a lot of games under his belt and that hasn't always happened.

"Maybe Arsene felt it was not the right signing for the club, I can see why - but I can also understand why some fans would like to have seen him at Arsenal.

"He'll improve any defence when he is playing."

Wenger conceded this week his side have lacked "defensive maturity" - but is reluctant to abandon his footballing principles, whatever flak comes his way.

"We want to win trophies by playing the way we do but we want to do it better," said the Frenchman defiantly after Sunday's 2-1 defeat in Manchester.

"But we have to go beyond the situation we have now where the praise given to winners is beyond reason while those who don't win are slaughtered beyond reason.

"Between success and failure this season there was very little. We have to accept that we will not win the title and that is hard to swallow.

"We do not feel that there is a difference technically and collectively between us and Chelsea and Manchester United.

"We play quality football because we think that is the way to win trophies. We have lacked maturity defensively at times this season but that will come."

Graham agrees with the manager's assessment, particularly the last statement.

"Basically," says 63-year-old Graham, "Arsenal have conceded too many goals when it has mattered.

"I would say three positions need strengthening, but I will not say who specificially should come in because I don't know.

"What I would say is that they have to be certainties to start, not players who will be ready in two or three seasons.

"The guys must be ready to go straight into the starting XI, no question about it.

"Experience is the key, a couple of extra players would make a key difference.

"Look at Liverpool's success in Europe. They have built on strong foundations and have a centre forward who can bang in 30 goals a season - it isn't rocket science. If you have a strong defence it always gives you a chance."

But after watching Arsenal's mesmerising display at Manchester United on Sunday, he is at pains to point out wholesale changes are not needed.

This season, he stresses, should be regarded as a big success for the club.

"There's not actually much that has gone wrong, really. For three- quarters of the season they have, in my opinion, been the best team in England and have led the Premier League for virtually all of that time," he adds.

"I would say to Arsenal fans to please look at the bigger picture. Yes, the last few weeks have been disappointing and the last quarter of the season has seen the side come apart. But cast your minds back to last summer when a lot of people were tipping Tottenham to overtake Arsenal - it hasn't happened.

"Arsenal have improved immensely and with the right players coming in they should improve even more next season."

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