International Soccer
Different paths to the top for Arsenal, Manchester United

By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Saturday's 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Manchester United left the clubs tied atop the Premiership standings, and while they have enjoyed similar results this season, the way that the sides have gotten there is quite different.

Both teams have started their Champions League campaigns off with three straight wins and can clinch a spot in the second round of the competition this week, but they have used different strategies to reach this point.

They are two of the most successful clubs in England, both have money to spend, and both have done well with developing players, but while Manchester United has preferred to throw money around in the transfer window to add to its core group of players, Arsenal has taken a different approach.

Robin Van Persie
Robin Van Persie has become Arsenal's main scoring threat.
The Gunners have instead favored youth and development over quick-fix signings and veteran experience.

When the club allowed long-time striker and captain Thierry Henry to leave for Barcelona over the summer, it looked like Arsenal would once again be left to battle for a spot in the Champions League rather than contend for the league title.

Henry was upset that the club was not interested in making any signings over the summer that would add veteran experience. The Frenchman felt that if Arsenal was going to take the next step, then it had to add veteran leadership to a team that had become increasingly reliant on youthful exuberance.

However, Henry left for Spain and all Arsenal has done is go unbeaten in its first 11 Premiership games and join United at the top of the table.

Arsene Wenger's side has thrived despite the absence of Henry because they have always had players who are capable of picking up the slack. Robin Van Persie was brilliant in taking over the role as Arsenal's top scoring threat, until a knee injury sustained while playing for the Netherlands put him on the sideline.

Prior to the ailment, the Dutchman had scored five goals in the team's first seven games, and teamed with Emmanuel Adebayor to form a lethal strike partnership.

Since then, it has been Adebayor who has shouldered the scoring load, netting six goals on the season and getting some help from dynamic midfielder Francesc Fabregas, who shares the team scoring lead with Adebayor and is the key cog in the Arsenal machine.

The trio has more in common then just the ability to score goals. None of the three have yet celebrated their 25th birthday, and all three have seen their careers blossom under the watchful eye of Wenger.

Adebayor joined Arsenal prior to the 2006 season from France, but he was not a well-known commodity or a sure bet to develop into a top-notch striker.

Both Van Persie and Fabregas have been with the London club since the early part of their careers, and have steadily worked their way into the lineup, taking over for the likes of departed veterans Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.

Arsenal has been patient with its young players over the past couple of seasons, allowing youngsters like Fabregas, Van Persie, Gael Clichy, Mathieu Flamini and Emmanuel Eboue to develop. They have not been serious title challengers in the past few years, but their patience has paid off with a team that looks likely to contend with United and Chelsea over the course of a long season.

For Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, patience is not a word that is uttered too often around Old Trafford.

Sure, Ferguson has seen his share of young players blossom before his eyes, but he prefers to make the most of the money made available to him for spending on transfers.

Much like free agency in American sports, the transfer window offers soccer teams the ability to turn their fortunes around with one or two big signings.

Ferguson has become a master at identifying young talent at other clubs, and bringing those players to Manchester with huge contracts that the team can afford because it is one of the most popular and wealthiest clubs in the world.

Striker Wayne Rooney was a teenage phenom at Everton before becoming the goal- scoring threat he is today. Cristiano Ronaldo showed flashes of brilliance at Sporting Lisbon before he displayed the ability to become one of the top players in the world last season.

United has had players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who have come up through the ranks and been with the club their entire careers, but they truly rely on spending big bucks for blue-chip talent.

After winning the league title last season, Ferguson still went out and spent millions in the transfer window this summer on Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson and Nani.

Arsenal, meanwhile, did not feel compelled to throw cash around, and instead ended up selling longtime Gunners Henry and Fredrik Ljungberg. Wenger has also seen the departure of veterans Ashley Cole and Vieira in recent years, but he has always stuck by his young guns.

Now, those young guns are blossoming and challenging United and its big-ticket items for the league title.

Both are gearing up for lengthy runs in the Champions League, and both are ready for a season-long tussle at the top of the Premiership.

Both teams are also proving that there is more than one road that leads to the top.

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Contact Pat Martin at pmartin@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
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