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Stoppage Time: Arsenal must now take the next step

(SportsNetwork.com) - If Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks like he is walking a little bit taller these days, it's probably because he is no longer carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Arsenal's 3-2 comeback win over Hull City in the FA Cup final on Saturday brought the Gunners their first trophy in nine seasons, which must have felt like an eternity for an Arsenal fan base that had become accustomed to trophy celebrations.

After arriving at Arsenal in October 1996, Wenger helped the club capture three league titles and four FA Cups in his first nine years in charge.

But the next nine years were barren until Saturday's win over Hull, which saw Arsenal fall behind 2-0 in the opening 10 minutes.

"It is a relief and happiness because we were under severe pressure to win," Wenger said in his press conference following the victory.

What is revealing is the fact the Frenchman used the word relief before happiness, because at this point, it wasn't so much about the joy of winning a trophy as it was about getting the monkey off his back.

Since Arsenal's last title, which was the 2005 FA Cup final that saw the team beat Manchester United on penalty kicks, Arsenal has lost to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, Chelsea in the League Cup final in 2007, and worst of all, the 2011 League Cup final against heavy underdog Birmingham City.

But now that the drought is finally over, Arsenal must take the next step and get itself back into contention for the Premiership title.

The 2003-04 campaign was one to remember for Arsenal fans, not only because it is the last time the club won the league, but because the team went the entire 38-game campaign without a loss, earning them the label of Invincibles.

Yet since that time, the closest Arsenal has come to winning the league was the 2007-08 season, when the team finished in third place, four points back of first-place Manchester United.

In fact, the only time Arsenal has finished in the top two since its title- winning campaign was the 2004-05 season when the team finished second to Chelsea, which ran away with the league and was 12 points better than Wenger's men.

Arsenal spent more time at the top of the league table this season than any other team, yet the club still managed to finish in fourth place, seven points adrift of champions Manchester City.

Many times it is dropped points against bottom-half teams that prove to be the difference in the title race. Yet it was against the best sides in the league that Arsenal's weaknesses were exposed.

Against City, Arsenal collected one point from two games, losing the first meeting at the Etihad Stadium, 6-3.

Arsenal also gained one point from two matches against third-place Chelsea, although the Gunners were ripped apart 6-0 in the second meeting at Stamford Bridge.

Wenger's side split a pair of games with second-place Liverpool, winning 2-0 at home in the first half of the season before a 5-1 thrashing at Anfield in February.

And even against fifth-place Everton, Arsenal could only muster a point, earning a draw at home before a 3-0 defeat on the road.

So in eight games against its four closest title rivals this season, Arsenal managed only six points, and the team was outscored 22-8.

In order to improve upon those results, it will be important for Wenger to address the team's biggest weaknesses in the transfer market, where the boss has received considerable heat in recent years.

Wenger's reluctance to spend big on players in their prime has been a big source of frustration for Arsenal supporters.

Generally, Wenger prefers to sign young talent for a more reasonable price, which isn't a bad strategy at a mid-table club.

But Arsenal is not a mid-table club, and Wenger took a step toward changing that mentality last summer when he shelled out $70 million on midfielder Mesut Ozil.

The German scored five goals and led the team with nine assists this season, but it is questionable whether he was the right purchase last summer.

Olivier Giroud finished as the team's leading scorer with 16 goals, but the problem is that Giroud is the only real option at striker on the club, a need that Wenger failed to address in the January transfer window.

Ozil's addition simply added another playmaking talent to a midfield that already had a number of options. It didn't address the fact Arsenal is in need of a player who can finish off the chances created by its midfield.

Strikers like Mario Mandzukic at Bayern Munich as well as Wilfried Bony of Swansea City would make nice additions up top for Arsenal, while Wenger must also add some toughness to a midfield that consists of mainly finesse players.

Bringing Mathieu Flamini back to Arsenal was a nice move by Wenger last summer, and he would be wise to secure the return of another former Gunner, Alex Song.

Song spent six seasons in London before moving to Barcelona, and his grit is a much-needed attribute for an Arsenal side that too often was overrun in the midfield by some of the better teams in the league.

Injuries to key players like Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott robbed Wenger of his top midfield options for large portions of the season.

If they are able to stay healthy next year and Wenger is aggressive in the transfer market in attracting a top striker as well as more toughness in midfield, Arsenal might be able to take the next step and contend for a league title.

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