When Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United in 2013, he did so as a champion.
Overcoming the ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City and wresting the title back from the Blue grasp will be up there with any of Ferguson’s greatest achievements at Old Trafford – mostly because it meant more than just winning a final title. It meant retiring as Premier League champion; but more than that. It meant leaving the club to his hand-picked successor in a state of health and vitality; but more than that, too.
Ferguson, after all, is a Promethean figure: a man who stole the Heavenly Fire from Anfield, home of the Gods, and brought it to Old Trafford. He couldn’t very well leave United having himself been the victim of exactly the same theft. Not to Manchester City, of all clubs. Winning that final league title didn’t just mean another Premier League winner’s medal: it meant not being knocked off his f*cking perch.
Things are, of course, very different for the other ubiquitous Titan of the Premier League era. Arsene Wenger vacated his perch some time ago, floating somewhere around fourth place ever since. But with suggestions that Wenger may leave Arsenal for good, come comparisons not just to Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford, but to life afterwards.
After Ferguson came Moyes, and after Moyes, Van Gaal. It has taken Manchester United almost four years and half a billion pounds spent on transfer fees alone to bring back the feel-good around Carrington. As Daniel Taylor points out in The Guardian, that’s money Manchester United might be willing to spend, but not Arsenal. Not going on recent history, anyway. The message is clear: be careful what you wish for.
But if the warning is prudent, the scenarios are different. If Arsene Wenger leaves this summer, he’ll leave a club who will not – barring a miracle – be the champions. He will leave a club who have flip-flopped their way to fourth place or thereabouts in very different ways over the last decade. A club who have frustrated large swathes of their support for a long period of time. He won’t leave what Ferguson left.
And yet, if results and trophies are not on Wenger’s side in the legacy stakes, it’s worth pointing out that trophies are not all Ferguson is remembered for. History, the further we get from his retirement, will probably focus on the trophies. But fresh in the memory is the fact that the team Ferguson left in David Moyes’ hands is partly to blame for their current problems. On that score, too, Wenger won’t leave what Ferguson left.
Manchester United now have only five regulars from David Moyes’ first season in charge – though that’s counting Juan Mata, who arrived in January 2014, six months after Ferguson left. The others are David de Gea (who was, at least, a helpful Ferguson purchase), Antonio Valencia (albeit in a much different role), Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney (both of whom will cease to play for the club sooner rather than later).
Arsene Wenger, however, will leave a much stronger side.
It is a side lacking in some sort of mental toughness, too. Something in the realms of the darker, less tangible footballing qualities. But it is not a team to win one last league title and then fall off a cliff, as United seemed to do.
When Ferguson bought Robin van Persie, it was obvious he was buying a player who had only one or two seasons of top quality left in his legs. It was a purchase that guaranteed the league title, in the end, not one that guaranteed any more than that.
The closest Wenger comes to that is Petr Cech who, at 34, will need to be replaced by a new manager fairly soon after coming into the job. The rest doesn’t look quite so bad.
With hindsight, we really should have seen the problem coming. The back four Ferguson left to Moyes is, by modern standards, a disgrace: De Gea, Rafael, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra. Rio Ferdinand left the club the next summer after starting fewer and fewer games. It’s a back four that, frankly, proves just how good a manager Ferguson was. But it’s also a back four that mitigates much of Moyes’ failure.
Compare that to what Wenger will likely leave: Cech, Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal. Cech will, as mentioned, need to be replaced. But at 31, Koscielny should have another couple of seasons before his legs go, giving a new manager some time to sort things out and groom a replacement. The same goes for Monreal. Mustafi and Bellerin could both give Arsenal another decade.
If this is to be Wenger’s last season at Arsenal, you can see the similarities with Ferguson. It’s only natural that the two would be compared given their longevity and the fact they spent so long sparring each other.
It looks as though Wenger could see that, too. He built what is currently his best side in over a decade, probably with an eye towards achieving one final title, like Ferguson. But unlike Ferguson – and surely learning from his peer’s mistakes here – Wenger has built a team with a spine, whose important players – Cech aside – will be there for a few good years to come, should the successor desire. Though, admittedly, that doesn’t take into account the uncertainty around the contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United having achieved his goal, winning an epic Premier League power struggle. Arsene Wenger won’t do that. But forget about epic power struggles and greatness. Focus on what really matters. Wenger will leave a team capable of staying in the top four. There will be struggles and teething problems for a new manager, for sure, but if Wenger left today, Arsenal would be in a mess nothing like the one Ferguson left for Moyes.