Title target for young Gunners
"You'll never win anything with kids."
That was the declaration of television pundit Alan Hansen, a rock in Liverpool's veteran, all-conquering side of the 1970s and 1980s, when Manchester United lost 3-1 to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995/96 season. The Red Devils had sold established performers Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes, and padded their void with an assortment of youth-team graduates.
However, thrust by a first-choice midfield - one comprising David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs - that had an average age of just 21, Sir Alex Ferguson's side tasted the fruits of Premier League glory as the campaign reached its conclusion. Hansen's serving that day was humble pie.
Arsene Wenger now believes the time has come for his emerging charges to emulate 'Fergie's Fledglings', given that Arsenal's inimitable pass-and-move system revolves around a midfield that is young and talented in equal measure. Indeed, the quartet who will likely form it away to Everton on the opening day of the 2009/10 Premier League on Saturday, namely Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Denilson and Andrei Arshavin, have an average age of under 23 - a figure significantly augmented by the 28-year-old Russian.
Despite their adolescence, the four, all of different nationalities and styles, have comparative experience. Denilson, a perceptive holding midfielder who boasts efficient distribution and is adept at dissolving opposition attacks, is mature beyond his 21 years. He captained Brazil at U-15, U-17 and U-20 level, has already featured in Dunga's senior squad, and made more appearances than any Arsenal player last term.
Walcott may only be 20, but he has largely been a first-team regular for the past two seasons and has relegated David Beckham to the England bench. And although his principal weapon is sprinter's pace, the diamond in the rough that Arsenal bought from Southampton in 2006 has been polished. "Theo's end product has improved greatly," remarked Wenger recently.
Possessing an innate capacity to run at speed with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, and the final ball to render this rare, explosive dribbling lethal, Arshavin is absolutely one of the finest playmakers in the world. He inspired Zenit to UEFA Cup glory last year, illuminated UEFA EURO 2008, and now captains the country he has represented for seven years.
And if every magnificent orchestra requires a master conductor, Arsenal has one nonpareil. For a player who lacks speed, strength and, by his own admission, does not score enough goals, Cesc Fabregas is one of the most fascinating, formidable midfielders on the planet. The owner of extrasensory vision and immaculate precision of pass, the Spaniard has, implausibly, managed 43 direct assists in 92 appearances over the last three Premier League campaigns.
"Cesc's vision is excellent," remarked Arshavin. "He plays the ball into excellent positions for our players. He is fantastic, a joy to play alongside. Cesc and I now understand each other better and we are ready to help Arsenal win trophies."
Fabregas's influence is not exclusive to what he does on the ball, as he is also the club's captain. And although a babe in arms at only 22, he is not short on top-level experience having been a fixture in the Gunners side for the past five seasons, and helped Spain win EURO 2008 and embark on an unsurpassed 35-game undefeated run.
And Fabregas is adamant Arsenal have what it takes to conquer the 2009/10 Premier League. "This year is going to be the one, I am sure of it," he enthused. "We must be positive, we have quality here and the boss believes in all of us. We have so much talent in this squad and in the reserves - there's really some great potential."
Indeed there is. Wenger's alternative midfield options include Tomas Rosicky and Samir Nasri, 28 and 22 respectively and both currently on the treatment table, the 21-year-old Alex Song, 21, Abou Diaby, 23, and Aaron Ramsey, still just 18.
However, the player hurling excitement through the veins of the supporters is Jack Wilshere. The 17-year-old, an attacking midfielder who loves to run at opponents and rupture defences with deviceful through-balls, headlined Arsenal's recent Emirates Cup conquest, scoring twice in a 3-0 victory over Rangers in the final.
Wenger has likened Wilshere to Wayne Rooney. England coach Fabio Capello has admitted he could take the teenager to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "He plays without fear, with confidence," said the Italian. "This is not normal to be so young and so good."
Former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour has been blown away by Wilshere. "He makes the game looks easy and that is an art," said the former Gunners midfielder. "It's something that you are born with and he's going to be a massive talent." Robin van Persie added: "It almost makes me scared when I see him play - he has massive potential."
The Dutchman recently committed his long-term future to the 13-time English champions. "I love this club and I love playing in this side," he commented. "We have a wonderful midfield, it's so creative, and this makes my job as a forward really enjoyable.
"We have a top-class manager, a squad full of superb young players, a world-class stadium and brilliant supporters. One of the main reasons I signed was to lift a big trophy. It is going to be hard (to win the Premier League) because we have lots of competition, but Arsenal have a big chance."
Arsenal may have lost Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, but they certainly have sources of encouragement. Fabregas, Walcott and Eduardo all spent lengthy spells on the sidelines during 2008/09, when they went 21 league matches unbeaten from November to May, while Arshavin was only signed in February.
"This team has improved a lot as compared to last season," said Wenger. "We have a squad which is very ambitious. We have the basic quality, they have the international quality and are under 23, so their best time is now. We have developed a style and culture of play that everybody accepts, so I feel confident and very strong."
So, can Wenger's class of 2009/10 emulate Ferguson's children of 1995/96? The United manager, who has already dismissed the title credentials of Liverpool and Manchester City, believes they can.
"Cesc Fabregas has been the architect of that team for the last three or four years," said Ferguson. "I think they'll be stronger than last season. If Arsenal keep clear of injuries, they'll be up there challenging.
The message is apparent: Arsenal's objective is not only to satiate the purists' desire for harmonic, gorgeous football; it is also to gratify the Gooners' thirst for a first Premier League trophy since 2004.