James Lawton: Arsenal's method and inspiration put sheikh's riches in the shade

It is not unreasonable to think this may indeed be Arsenal's most serious challenge for honours in some years
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If the particularly valuable assets of Thomas Vermaelen and Jack Wilshere had been available for an examination which had promised to be so stern, Arsenal might well have more profoundly underlined the football reality check they inflicted on 10-man Manchester City.

They would have been tighter at the back and more relentlessly precise in the middle of the field, which would have surely eroded even sooner the competitive endeavour which City, so desperately ransacked by the early folly of young Dedryk Boyata, managed to maintain with impressive spirit, right up to the moment Carlos Tevez limped away early in the second half.

However, if the final margin of three goals – which would have been four if Joe Hart hadn't issued another nerveless announcement of his phenomenal progress by saving a penalty-kick from Cesc Fabregas – was somewhat flattering, it still carried a powerful message to the English plutocrats who might have been celebrating this as a pivotal day in their drive to become the most formidable force in the game.

They might have maintained themselves as the closest rivals to Chelsea and the favourites to drink from the dubious chalice of Wayne Rooney's talent.

Instead, and with a certain poignancy when the City of Manchester Stadium paid homage to the brilliant coach Malcolm Allison, they received something of a lesson in quite what provides a club with the foundation of impending greatness.

It is maybe not by cherry-picking every available superstar, however questionable their professional consistency, but establishing a method that indeed opens up the possibility of clear and striking progress.

For all the resources that have filled the club with such individual playing strength, City's Roberto Mancini is some way from those certainties of ambition which Allison, all those years ago, declared at his first training session.

Allison declared that City would play with an unremitting boldness, a sense of their own potential and down the months and the years it was almost seamlessly augmented by the acquisition of such major players as Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Tony Book.

Plainly, the new City already have a few major figures of their own, but yesterday they also saw how it is when a group of players, who happened to be wearing Arsenal shirts, have a way of playing, and thinking, that sometimes seems as natural as breathing.

Yesterday, Fabregas and Samir Nasri, particularly, were brilliantly faithful to the ethos of their manager, Arsène Wenger. Asked before the game whether he would take a draw right then, he naturally demurred. He said Arsenal always played to win and it was a message that Fabregas supported with much eloquence after the game.

He said that he didn't know where Arsenal's commitment to a certain way of playing would lead this season, any more than in the last five when the vital underpinning of silverware has been so elusive, but that was really wasn't the point of what they were trying to do. To win, yes, but win in the way their talent and their philosophy made them most able – and certainly there were moments yesterday when Arsenal's football soared above the analysis which inevitably came in the wake of Boyata's scything down of Marouanne Chamakh after Fabregas had put his first sublime imprint on the game with a through pass that left the young Belgian defender in a fever of calamitous doubt.

The goals of Nasri and Alex Song belonged to the highest category of football creativity and if there is bound to be scepticism about the possibility that Arsenal may also have stumbled upon the iron that has hitherto been so damagingly absent, it is not unreasonable to suspect that with, their chronic injury list showing sharp improvement, this may indeed be the team's most serious challenge for honours in some years.

It was certainly an uplifting possibility at the end of a week in which many felt the vast wealth of City had put all of English football in its thrall, even to the point where Rooney and his agent might trail along to East Manchester in pursuit of their unique largesse.

Yesterday, other possibilities were at least stirring. Javier Hernandez suggested to Manchester United, once again, that there might have been some life after Rooney – a hope that may return sooner than some of us think – and Arsenal at last managed to dispute the claim that they have become terminally deficient when the stakes are at their highest.

For City, there is still everything to achieve and, who knows? Mancini may be close to coming up with something like a convincing brand of his own. However, on the day when Malcolm Allison's name was revered, and when it was remembered quite what kind of football his teams produced, the Italian surely didn't need telling that much work is still to be done.

Some time soon, a little deep-running inspiration would also help.