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Aug 12, 2014

Gunners finally fit Wenger's vision

ESPN FC's Craig Burley explains why he thinks the Gunners are not quite ready to win a Premier League title this season.

For once, there's only one deep question surrounding Arsenal as they approach a new season, and it has to do with a triumph rather than any sense of trepidation.

There are no fears about the sale of a first-team star and no obsession with the absence of a major signing. Instead, the remaining issue regards the exact reality around a rampantly impressive victory.

- Brewin: Wenger looks forward with optimism
- Palmer: Szczesny hails 'strong' Arsenal squad

Are Arsenal actually as good as the 3-0 Community Shield win over Manchester City suggested? Is it time to get excited? Might the past season's suggestion of a title race transform into a full statement?

The most obvious response to all that is it was still only a friendly, and City barely started any of their own stars, but Arsene Wenger was already looking deeper.

"To win gives us a positive platform to prepare," the Arsenal manager said. "It was important for our confidence to win the game, and it was even more important to have a big part in the game. That is a comfort for me to see that we can produce the kind of quality we have produced for some long patches in the game."

Now, the challenge is to produce it over longer periods of the season, but continuity is what this is really all about. That was the true value of the Community Shield -- and even May's FA Cup win over Hull City -- providing something proper to build on rather than vague notions of progress from a perpetual fourth place.

Arsene Wenger has built his squad around a core of British players such as Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott.

It also temporarily removes the deepest question of all: the debate about whether Wenger remains the best man for the job.

In that regard, it's now impossible not to put a completely different spin on the past season's notion that winning the FA Cup would have been the ideal way to retire, the chance to say goodbye in the right way.

Such a victory, after so long without a trophy, should never have been the end of anything. Instead, it should always have been the chance to at least try to start something new, particularly with a squad with such a young British core.

Premier League Preview: Arsenal

Brian Clough's thoughts about the "the champagne effect" have been mentioned a lot since Arsenal defeated Hull City at Wembley, and there is certainly merit in the idea that a first trophy can finally move a team onto another level. It has been witnessed with so many, from Manchester United's 1990 FA Cup victory to Manchester City lifting the same piece of silverware under Roberto Mancini back in 2011.

Squads can get "addicted" to victory, with that only adding an edge that helps them apply their ability more often. Doubt or hesitation are lessened because you've been there before.

The nucleus of this Arsenal team has finally added the knowledge of what it's like to win a trophy.

Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta is hoping to lift more trophies after insisting the Community Shield isn't enough.

Just as importantly, and for the second summer in succession, they have not lost any of that nucleus. Sure, the 31-year-old Bacary Sagna might have gone, but he has already been replaced by a younger model in Mathieu Debuchy.

Wenger has at the same time enhanced the attack. Even if Alexis Sanchez was never what they absolutely, specifically needed, he is an elite-level upgrade. The prospect of the Chilean using his pace to get on the end of Mesut Ozil's best through passes is world-class material, and the type of thing that seemed beyond Arsenal around the misery of 2011.

It also begins to cover one of the side's main flaws of the past season: the complete absence of thrust and pace while Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey were injured.

This is all absolutely key to the ongoing question of whether Wenger himself is still at the same level as ever.

Throughout the difficulties of the past few years, one of the most persistent defences of the Arsenal manager has been that economic circumstances have simply not allowed him to replicate his best.

As so many around the club have testified, though, that best work was based on very specific circumstances. Wenger's finest teams have all been exquisite talents allowed to grow together to the point that their fine football was almost the natural consequence of completely organic evolution. Any potential tactical failings become somewhat irrelevant because, when at peak confidence and cohesion, Arsenal could simply bypass both them and the opposition through the quality of the attacking.

Now, there are the suggestions that type of process could be happening again, that we'll see Wenger's best management. A young British core are growing together, none have yet been removed, they are winning trophies and top-level talent is being added.

The big question after the disruption of the past few years is whether Wenger's best is still good enough to deliver the major trophies or his weakness are still too costly in a changed game.

This season might finally provide a perfect case study. Because make no mistake, some long-term flaws still remain.

The Arsenal squad does lack depth in certain areas, most conspicuously central midfield. Mikel Arteta was so clearly targeted in so many big games the past season -- not least the 3-0 defeat at Everton -- and the suspicion remains that the big signing should have been an upgrade in that area. Exhilarating as Alexis is too, Arsenal could maybe still do with a type of striker between the Chilean and Olivier Giroud.

Wenger himself could also do with more variation to his tactical approach, unless he is now confident the team is sufficiently cohesive to always play to a supreme level.

Beyond all that, there are also some of the intangibles. The most pressing, and the one Wenger referenced after beating City, is the disproportionately awful record against the top teams.

Excellent as Arsenal were Sunday, it's still difficult not to think City would be the side capable of moving up the necessary levels in a game that actually matters. That is what the evidence of the past few years suggests. Wenger must now continue to provide new evidence.

He has admittedly made a start, in what might be a new beginning. After so many years of frustration, Wenger finally gets to put out a team completely on his terms. The question is whether the terms elsewhere have changed too much.

We'll finally get to see. Arsenal have at least offered some positive first impressions.

Miguel Delaney

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.

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