Manchester United v Arsenal: Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger continue to cast long shadows
Until recently the dueling superpowers of English football, they now meet on a Monday night - made possible by their absence from the Champions League
By the time an epic reign ended, records had been broken, fans under 30 struggled to remember life under another manager and some of the players he inherited were nearer 60 than 50.
He had given the best years of his managerial life to an institution, leaving them with trophies in the cabinet and money in the bank. He felt he had left them in a position to prosper.
For Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, read Arsene Wenger at Arsenal? The parallels are imperfect. Ferguson retired with United in first, Wenger was sacked with Arsenal sixth. And yet the subsequent travails of superpowers show those bitter enemies turned unlikely friends cast a long shadow.
Post Ferguson, United wanted a dynasty and got a disaster. After Wenger, Arsenal looked for someone else who promised Uefa Champions League football on a budget. Unai Emery has already lasted longer than David Moyes did at Old Trafford, but perhaps, like Louis van Gaal, he may not survive a second season.
Fallen giants look for part of a legend’s legacy in a quest to regain past glories. In Moyes, United saw an obdurate Scot who had brought continuity and consistency, in Van Gaal, an advocate of youth whose attacking philosophy brought a Champions League in the 1990s, in Jose Mourinho a serial winner, in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a man who had lived through Ferguson’s greatest days and loved United. None, thus far, has been the complete package.
The Wenger Emery has emulated has been the late-period version, of adventurous attacking but disastrous defending, of efforts at home undermined by a wretched record on the road.
The post-Wenger Arsenal have offered more of the right kind of entertainment than United since Ferguson – the Gunners’ tally of 73 league goals last year was more their rivals’ total in any of the last six seasons – but fragility takes different forms.
Some of Arsenal’s conquerors last season – Southampton, Everton, West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester City – are reminiscent of the lesser lights who discovered they could beat Moyes’ United: West Bromwich Albion, Everton, Newcastle United, Swansea City, Sunderland and Stoke City. In contrast, victories over the elite were rarities.
There are similarities in their situations in a second season into a new world. Neither managerial emperor left the inheritance he imagined. Each bequeathed too many ageing players.
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Defences required revamping: a year after Ferguson retired, the experienced trio of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra left Old Trafford. Now Emery is having to reconfigure Arsenal without Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech. Each lost a talismanic Welshman from midfield, even if Ryan Giggs and Aaron Ramsey left the playing staff for different reasons.
Successors could be forgiven for lamenting some of the ageing maestros’ final recruits. Emery has offloaded Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lucas Perez and surely wishes Shkodran Mustafi was gone. Moyes found little use for Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell, Alexander Buttner or even Shinji Kagawa.
In each case, perhaps, the structure of the club was not strong enough to survive the loss of an all-encompassing figure. Arsenal tried to reduce Wenger’s influence but two of the powerbrokers, chief executive Ivan Gazidis and head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, have already gone. United have had a different issue, with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward remaining but not adding enough expertise to the boardroom.
And United represent the warning for Arsenal, spending £900 million (Dh4.06 billion) on players in six years, assembling the largest wage bill in England and not expecting a title challenge until 2021-22.
An era has the feel of an extended error. At least, Ferguson and Wenger may reflect, they have not been overshadowed by replacements. The nostalgic will already hark back to their finest hours but the clubs they propelled into a duopoly are now twinned in Europa League action, playing in a Monday night slot which would have been impossible were either in the Champions League and with players who would not have got close to their best sides.
Published: September 30, 2019 08:45 AM