The manner of Arsenal's capitulation in the title race has been hard to take, but easy to understand. For all of Arsene Wenger's skill and dexterity at mind games, his comments after the Leeds game about Arsenal still being the best team in England were both unsportsmanlike and inaccurate. In the end, we dropped the points and Manchester United didn't. But in time, will we look back on this season and see it as being such a disaster for us? Given our lack of success in Europe, you could argue that retaining the title could have proved to have been a bigger disaster, as our continued success in the Premier League may have led to some our current flaws remaining hidden for yet another season. Failure in Europe next year will certainly lead to the departure of some of our best players, something that has been hinted at on several occasions by Patrick Vieira and, more recently, Robert Pires.
These flaws lie mostly in three major areas - our defence; our reliance on the excellence of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira; and on Arsene Wenger's one-dimensional approach to team selection, driven by his insistence on acquiring and selecting only those players who can fit into his attack-minded 4-2-4 formation. Most Arsenal supporters will admit that, since Christmas, the team has looked tired, like a house that needs a complete overhaul and redecoration. A lot of serious thought now needs to applied as to how we become capable of excelling in both the Premiership and beyond.
We are told that things will get better when we move to Ashburton Grove and are in a position to generate more money through gate receipts in order to compete on the transfer market. That's certainly true, up to a point, but what about next season? How do we keep the nucleus of the squad together and breath new life into a tired and dispirited side on a limited budget of £10 million? Making wholesale changes for the sake of it (as witnessed regularly at Liverpool) is certainly not the answer and is financially beyond us. Besides, our margin of failure this season has not been that great. Perhaps we should look at our closest competitors and the current benchmark against whom we are measured - Manchester United.
Only the most blinkered Gooner could fail to congratulate Manchester United on what has been a remarkable run of results in the Premiership in 2003. To win the title by having to play against almost the entire top half of the Premiership in the final eight games is no mean achievement and every Arsenal supporter will recognise in Manchester United's run of results something that we achieved in 1998 and 2002.
You also have to admire Sir Alex Ferguson, no matter how unpalatable for a Gooner that may be, for his judgment in making such a result deliverable. Under great pressure when results were not going his way, he released for treatment key players, such as Scholes and Keane, who were carrying niggling injuries, in the belief that the team would adapt to new faces and formations. This was the first season that football managers have had limited recourse to the transfer market outside of certain periods and Ferguson addressed this issue by picking players with the talent to grow into the roles that were more usually filled by their more experienced colleagues. He had enough faith in his youth players and training staff to blood the likes of O'Shea and Fletcher in the first team at an early stage of the season. It is a pity that Arsene Wenger did not have the same faith in Liam Brady's youngsters, who have consistently outshone their Manchester rivals in FA youth competitions.
The attitude of Ferguson to injuries and his foresight in overcoming the closure of the transfer window should be contrasted with the mistakes made by Arsene Wenger throughout the season. These include the sale of Matthew Upson to Birmingham City; not giving Gilberto Silva the time off to recover from the World Cup and to adapt to English football (remember that all of Arsene Wenger's imports have needed a season to become accustomed to football in the Premiership); forcing Freddie Ljungberg, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst and Robert Pires back from injury too early; and the playing of Patrick Vieira at a time when he was carrying a painful injury. Incidentally, I wonder whether Thierry Henry will be taken off to hospital for some form of surgery in the close season, as he has looked for half the year like he too is carrying a hidden injury. This litany of injuries is not an excuse for Arsenal not winning the title. Manchester United learned this lesson last year and this season showed us how to face up to and overcome exactly these issues.
So, where now for Arsenal? Certainly not through making panic buys in the transfer market. Whilst buying a decent defender and understudy midfielder must be at the top of Arsene Wenger's priorities, the talent elsewhere in the team is already there to be tested. And the imperative to move to Ashburton Grove? The current gap in revenues between us and Manchester United is huge, but our relative spending powers in the transfer market is largely meaningless because Ferguson has tended to make one or two high profile signings a season that in the last year together cost £50 million. We have already seen that Ferguson's signings (with the exceptions of Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy) haven't been entirely successful for him and he has had to rely on existing or home-grown players to make up the shortfall of talent in his team. The difference between success and failure at this level is slight and those that succeed do it through team spirit, determination and the motivational skills and the guidance of the coaching staff. Whatever other charges you may level at Arsene Wenger this summer, he has shown the ability to develop players of exceptional quality and to make inspirational acquisitions on a small budget, despite buying a lot of dross along the way. What matters for Arsenal now is that he no longer overlooks the home-grown talent that can deliver the team spirit and determination required to go on and retain titles. These are qualities that were shown by Ray Parlour and Ashley Cole against Leeds on Sunday.
Watching that match reminded me of Manchester United's final game away at West Ham in the season that Blackburn won the title. In both of these matches, Arsenal and Manchester United desperately sought the winning goal, peppering their opponents' goals with shots and both came away with nothing but questions about the future. Alex Ferguson answered these questions and brought in Scholes, Beckham, Butt and Neville to join the fast-improving Giggs. Despite Alan Hansen's ominous words (you'll never win the title with kids), the understanding and team work these players had formed in the youth set up have galvanised a first team that has had the resilience and self belief to go on and win back-to back titles, then the Champions League and now the Championship from a long distance behind. Now it is Arsene Wenger's turn to take the same "risks" with his youth players. The last time Arsenal lost the Championship, Arsene Wenger played Ashley Cole in a meaningless game against Newcastle. It was the springboard to a regular first team place and an England call up. Arsene Wenger now has two games before the FA Cup Final and the whole of next season to pick a first team that can include regular appearances for Jermaine Pennant, Moritz Volz, Sebastian Svard, David Bentley, Jeremie Aliadiere and Ryan Gary, amongst others.
The coaching staff has the ability to convert our youth players into the future Adamses, O'Bradys, O'Learys, Stapletons. Boulds, Keowns, Wrights, Henrys and Vieiras that Arsenal requires to compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Without using this youth, it is doubtful that Arsene Wenger will be able to deliver the "power shift" in English football he promised last year, let alone achieve his ambition of winning the Champions League.