James Lawton: Wenger's young thoroughbreds will outrun United in the long term

'There is nobody who has stored such riches as Wenger'
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The Independent Online

It was the kind of thinly disguised disparagement which would have been more familiar on the lips of Arsène Wenger after his latest banishment from Europe but it was Sir Alex Ferguson, the new favourite to win the Champions League, who suggested the '07 vintage was looking distinctly thin after Barcelona's death on the vine at Anfield.

No, said the man who knows his way round a good Burgundy or Bordeaux better than most, he couldn't pick a dominant threat among the quarter-final survivors. Barça had been the class product of 2006 but in the end you could scarcely distinguish them from a jug of sangria.

So for Fergie, he made it plain, it is a case of taking what comes along in United's currently shaky pursuit of the historic treble they landed in 1999 - and without too much trepidation.

In fact, you could make a case of roughly equal force for the remaining English runners: United plagued by a sudden dose of injury and suspension and the impending departure of the marvellous Henrik Larsson, and desperately searching for the slick coherence and beautiful passing which gave them such momentum before Christmas; Chelsea refusing, so far, to lose focus despite ever more explicit civil war at Stamford Bridge, and Liverpool, Rafael Benitez's course specialists of tigerish tackling still striding along in the absence of a creative thought in their heads.

But what of Arsenal, the team who fell so badly, so disconsolately, the least sentimental elements of the bookmaking trade have already made them odds-on (10-11) to go through next season without landing any of four available trophies? For the foreseeable future are they really at the end of their road? No. Though it is fashionable, and perhaps unavoidable, to take aim at the embattled Wenger, it also shows a shocking failure to understand that for many reasons, including the one made by Ferguson that it is not a time of extraordinary development in any club in Europe, there are different ways of measuring success in today's game.

One of them is Arsenal's only way of comforting themselves at this moment as they stand so forlornly on the jetty while the rest of English football's elite march into today's Champions League draw. But it is not a bad one; indeed, some of his rivals might kill for the right.

It is to ask a question that has never been more important than in this age of grossly inflated transfer market values and the signal failure of a club as mighty as Barcelona to build on the foundation of extravagant talent. Who could Wenger possibly envy as he reviews the progress of young players who will be at the core of his team for at least half a decade?

The answer could not be more emphatic. There is nobody in English football who has stored such riches. He has been as larcenous as he has been superbly acute in assembling such lion cubs as Cesc Fabregas, Denilson, Mathieu Flamini, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gäel Clichy, Armand Traoré and Johan Djourou. These are not objects of speculation. They are keepers and they will grow up, you could put the mortgage on it, in the soaring Emirates Stadium which for a while curbed Wenger's spending powers but now underpins the club's future.

Once, in his little office beneath Liverpool's old rickety main stand, Bill Shankly was explaining the club's future with the passing of such bedrock figures as Ronnie Yeats and Ian St John. He said that he had gathered together a bunch of young players who eventually would explode into the sky like a "great bloody bomb". The impact of this statement was not lessened by the fact that in order to make it the old warrior had clambered on to his desk, stood to his full height and then violently clasped his hands together.

Wenger, a more cerebral figure when he isn't ranting at the moon over some perceived injustice, is generally not given to such extravagant gestures, but who could have said he would have been wrong to have touched on a little of that bombast after the brilliance displayed by his young team in completing the double over Manchester United and, with the football equivalent of a stable full of two-year-olds, outplaying Chelsea for a good part of the recent Carling Cup final?

Shankly, sadly, was wrong about some of his youngsters, though not over the flyer Steve Heighway and Emlyn Hughes. Wenger by comparison appears to hold pretty much a full hand.

It is the most spectacular pure achievement in English football since Ferguson brought through his production line of young talent in the mid-Nineties, and under circumstances that the manager of United would be the first to agree have been changed quite radically by the FA's pursuit of a playing field that is level. Back then Alan Hansen declared that you don't win with kids, but of course Ferguson did, as Sir Matt Busby did before him. Everything depends on the kids.

Among Jose Mourinho's recent taunts is that he cannot afford to dally over the nurturing of young players. He has to win. When you have been given a budget guaranteed to make the president of a small republic drool, there is a certain obligation to get on with the business of winning, today.

It is not as though Wenger has detached Arsenal utterly from the game's glittering prizes. In a time of transition which is required by all those who lack the resources to make instant teams, he has taken his squad to a European Cup final, gone to a Carling Cup final in a campaign which was turned into a field exercise for his youngest first-teamers and contenders, and is on course to qualify again for Europe.

Whatever you think of some of his recent behaviour, it would be absurd to say that Wenger has been left behind. In a field which even the front-running Ferguson admits is not exactly loaded with distinction, he has lost an important race. But then it will resume in the autumn, when the shrewd betting has to be that Arsenal will be that much more experienced - and handily placed.

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