In almost any other league in the world, Arsene Wengers departure – having become synonymous with Arsenal, and the Premier League, over 22 iconic years – would be a unique, watershed moment. But, as was often the case when they faced off in the dugout, Sir Alex Ferguson has already been there and got the proverbial t-shirt. On Sunday, Wenger will visit Old Trafford, the scene of so many of his defining moments, for the last time.
It will be a poignant day for many reasons, not least because it is the final chapter in the Frenchmans long rivalry with both Manchester United and their current boss Jose Mourinho; the Portugueses arrival coincided with nine trophyless seasons at the Emirates. But also because it offers a rather ominous insight into life after a giant of the game steps down, something that will be keenly felt by those at Arsenal tasked with planning for life after Wenger.
United had less warning when Ferguson decided to step down after 26 years, with Arsenal already having taken significant steps to ease their reliance on Wenger and his cult of personality. The 68-year-old is the last true manager – in every sense of the word – in European football, someone not just responsible for what happens on the pitch but off it too. It was telling that, in a recent press conference, he cited finances among his key tasks, but that has already been significantly chipped away at.
Chief executive Ivan Gazidis has overseen a huge restructuring of Arsenal behind the scenes; he poached Sven Mislintat from Borussia Dortmund to be the clubs new head of recruitment, took Raul Sanellehi from Barcelona as head of football relations and brought in Huss Fahmy from Team Sky to negotiate contracts. But not only does that think-tank need to find and sign players who can close the 33-point gap to champions Manchester City, they must appoint a manager of similar pedigree too.
Unlike United, Arsenal do not have to worry about appointing a manager on the technicality of a legend who recommended him. Wenger will have no say in his replacement, while Ferguson had long earmarked fellow Scot David Moyes as his successor. It was, unquestionably, the single worst decision Sir Alex made in his entire tenure at Old Trafford.
The biggest problem was a stylistic one, both the man and the team. Ferguson played a combination of fast-paced, direct, attacking football, but was just as capable of digging in for a result too. In his final match, against West Brom, his team was filled with a number of mediocre squad players and those entering the twilight of their career. Tom Cleverley and Anderson in midfield, Alexander Buttner at left-back, and a once peerless centre-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both benched that day, looking increasingly vulnerable.
Yet still they won the title, thanks in large part to the left boot of Robin van Persie. Fergusons football philosophy, above all else, was about winning, regardless of the players at his disposal. But Moyes did not have that aura or association with success. At Everton, a mid-table finish and European challenge was considered a successful season. His football was of the plucky, underdog variety, and that was never going to be accepted at Old Trafford.
His belated efforts to replicate the direct football of Ferguson reached their nadir against Fulham. Less than a year earlier, Van Persie was latching onto a long ball to volley United towards the title against Aston Villa: it was fast, ruthless, brutally efficient football. Now the Dutchman was standing in the box as United attempted a record 81 crosses against the Cottagers.
Moyes was undoubtedly hamstrung by the lack of funds he was given to overhaul a squad in need of surgery – his only summer signing of note was Marouane Fellaini on deadline day, having stalled on a deal for Thiago Alcantara as he struggled to shake the more miserly mindset needed at Everton – but he was patently the wrong type of personality for United. It is that element that feels most pertinent to Arsenals search for a successor to Wenger.
David Moyes on the impossible job of replacing Sir Alex Ferguson
There was always going to be a transitional period after Sir Alexs time was over. There was a changing of the guard. Not only did I replace Alex, David Gill had also stepped down as chief executive and Ed Woodward came in. So it was always going to take time. Yes, I took over the champions, but clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City spent huge amounts of that money that summer in a bid to overtake us. And it was difficult for me to go into Old Trafford and rip up the team that had just ran away with the title. Having said that, things would have been a lot different if we had landed our main transfer targets. We were in for Gareth Bale and Cesc Fabregas. They were genuine targets, but for one reason or another we didnt get them over the line. Getting them would have been the perfect start in terms of reshaping the squad I inherited. Having said that, I accept totally that when you are manager of Manchester United, you have to win. I didnt win enough. But I dont think there is a manager out there who would have been able to do something better or quicker in the time I was given after Sir Alex retired. It was all about small margins.
Uniteds problem was two-fold: they needed both someone to fill the power vacuum left by Ferguson and significant investment in the squad. With the Moyes era failing to address either of those issues, a third problem was born: they needed to install a recognisable style after a year of stale, uninspiring, backwards football. Louis van Gaal, so welded to the philosophy he had first introduced at Ajax, was a natural choice to build a distinctive framework – dull though it may have been – that had been sorely lacking after Ferguson left.
But Arsenal do not have that problem. For all Wengers faults, the style of football he advocates has never been one. The Gunners have always played sparkling, dynamic football, and even this season only champions Manchester City have scored more Premier League goals at home than Wengers men. That platform, that footballing foundation, feels more solid than what Moyes inherited, while Arsenal have spent plenty on a squad that is spearheaded by £100m worth of prime-years striking talent.
Most home goals Premier League 2017/18
Manchester City58Arsenal49Liverpool41Manchester United35Tottenham32
That is why the Uniteds transition from Van Gaal to Mourinho, from aesthetic and philosophy to bold transfers and hard results, feels so relevant to Arsenals current situation. That is the crossroads Arsenal find themselves at right now, and which should inform their decision-making process most. Arsenals domestic campaign has stuttered because of their away form (theyve lost five on the bounce and scored fewer away goals than West Ham) and an absence of the intangibles that flow through great teams: grittiness, resilience, desire, passion. The Gunners are just a bit soft.
That was evident yet again in Thursdays Europa League clash against Atletico Madrid, gift-wrapping an away goal for Antoine Griezmann. Rarely have they been so dominant against such a good side, regardless of the numerical advantage, yet in the perfect encapsulation of the latter years of Wengers reign they conspired to commit their now trademark brand of hara-kiri. Such continued lapses hint at a wider failing: Has Wenger been too accommodating of his players? Too indulgent? Too willing to let them play within their comfort zone?
Arsenal, like United when they turned to Mourinho, need someone to help them make the leap back to the top. A proven winner; someone capable of retaining the football identity Wenger forged while adding a fresh layer of competitiveness and consistency; someone who can fire up the squad and who will no longer tolerate the dressing-room-selfies-when-finishing-fourth mediocrity that has infected the side. In truth they have needed it for the best part of a decade.
United took a while to land on the right man, and perhaps still havent found him. But the lesson for Arsenal is clear: there are no like-for-like replacements for managers like Ferguson and Wenger. But thats not necessarily a bad thing as far as the Gunners are concerned. Sir Alex left behind impossibly high standards, Wenger – likely to finish sixth this season – will not. But the foundations the Frenchman has laid down meticulously for two decades will remain, so the onus is on Arsenal to find someone to build on that; a manager who has strengths Wenger does not and the personality to lead a title charge. And, as Moyes will attest, once Arsenal find him they need to back him too.
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