Following Arsenal’s fourth successive draw in a row, which meant United claimed top spot in the league after falling five points behind just a few weeks previously, there was some talk questioning Arsene Wenger’s job security.
Former Chelsea boss, Jose Mourinho, has questioned Wenger’s position on a couple of occasions, most recently taunting, “Arsenal are a unique team. Their coach hasn’t won anything for years, but he’s an idol.” Whilst I don’t make a habit of agreeing with the not so special one, there is a lot of weight to what he is saying here. Mourinho understands the plight of Sir Alex Ferguson, under constant pressure to deliver results, which seemingly is not something Arsene Wenger has to deal with.
In 2005, the MEN Chief sports writer said, “if Fergie can arrest this shocking and alarming slump it will rank with anything he’s achieved in all his years at the club.” United had won nothing the season preceding this comment, the FA Cup the year before that, and the title the year before that. So essentially, after just one season with no trophy, the press were hot on the talk of Manchester United in freefall, of Ferguson losing the plot, with The Guardian writing a piece titled “Who is to blame for United’s decline?”
I have been very vocal in the past is championing Fergie following the dreadful press he got during those years between us winning the titles, despite picking up the FA and League Cups in this time period. However, it is undeniable that the wealth of Chelsea combined with our transition period knocked United off their perch, all be it temporarily, and the vultures circled excitedly.
After winning the league in 2003, United had to wait four seasons before getting their hands on the title again. After Arsenal put up a brave fight to reclaim the league for the majority of this season, it seems they don’t have the mental strength and experience to reclaim to do what United did, by claiming the title within the fourth season since their last win.
Following the late penalty at Birmingham, denying Arsenal a win, Wenger’s men have picked up just four points from a possible twelve. Wenger’s pick, William Gallas, showing himself up as unworthy of the captaincy at the club of our foes, has done little to change things around following his temper tantrum, other than publicly criticise his team mates. I can’t think of a title winning club that was lead to victory by a captain who left his team mates to deal with the last minute penalty (only had the penalty been saved and the man Gallas was supposed to be marking put away the rebound would the majority of Arsenal fans join everyone else in recognising what poor judgement and character that showed) or who cried in the centre circle whilst his team mates ran off the pitch to find out the latest news on their injured colleague. When you compare this captaincy with that of Roy Keane, which was epitomised by his heroic display in Turin back in 1999, when sacrificing himself, playing like a man possessed to get us to the European Cup final, knowing that he would play no part in that historic match, that it really is no wonder Arsenal are falling by the wayside, now looking more concerned with fighting off Chelsea for second place than winning the league.
If Arsenal are to go more than four seasons without not only a league title, but any trophy at all, then what does this say about Wenger, and the unpressurised environment at the club?
It is without doubt that even Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager ever in English football, would be given his marching orders long before he was given the opportunity to go four years with an empty trophy cabinet. It is interesting to look at Fergie’s track record at United when comparing the two managers. We all know the great man has won a sackful of trophies, but it is his consistency with winning as much as the number of times he’s won that should be noted.
Since Fergie’s first trophy in 1990, when he won the FA Cup ‘to save his job’, he hasn’t gone longer than one season without winning something with United. In the 17 years since that FA Cup success, United have seen just four years without a trophy.
1995 (won the double the season before, the double the season after), 1998 (won the league the season before, the Treble the season after), 2002 (won the league the year before, the league the year after), then the worst period, 2005 (won the FA Cup the year before, the League Cup the year after).
Now, before the ABUs start, Ferguson has of course spent more money than Wenger has done. Ferguson’s teams have always cost more than Wenger’s has. But how far can we take that argument? Chelsea’s team cost far more than United’s did last season, but that didn’t stop Fergie cruising to the title (and lest you forget both Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville played in less league games than John Terry did last season, before the injury card gets pulled).
Whilst United have made available more funds for transfers, it cannot be ignored that the lack of spending at Arsenal is Wenger’s choice. He’s had the money but for whatever reason, has decided against expensive dips in to the transfer market, rather investing his time and effort in youth. This is a United tradition, dating back to Sir Matt Busby, which was again realised with our Double winning side in 1996. However, Ferguson has the nowse to combine the players from our youth system with big money signings.
This season, 25 players have represented United (not including the League Cup match where several of our youngsters got a run out), nine of them have come from our youth team, seven of them cost £7 million or less, and nine of them were big-money players. Fergie has the perfect balance of youth products, bargains and expensive signings.
Wenger would not pay over the odds for a player, it seemingly goes against his principles. When United were searching for a Roy Keane replacement, they had no choice but to pay the overinflated £18.6 million price tag for Michael Carrick. Whenever United are interested in a player, the transfer fee rises, and when you buy English players, you can always expect another few million quid slapped on to the transfer fee. However, I honestly believe that without Carrick last season, we would have not won the league. He gave us that little bit extra we would have been lacking in John O’Shea or Darren Fletcher, playing an important part in our well moulded team.
That said, this pairing from our youth team had a part to play in our title winning season, with O’Shea playing in 33 of the 38 league games last season, and Fletcher 24 games. They are important squad members, despite the criticism they sometimes endure, and players of their ability, featuring in as many games as they do (49 in total for JoS last season, 40 for Fletcher) would cost us a pretty penny. Their inclusion in our team is of course a credit to Ferguson.
Arsenal fans will not want to see the back of Arsene Wenger, even if he fails to win anything for a fourth year, and I am not being overly critical of this. However, Wenger’s reassurance over his future at Arsenal, being offered a “job for life” at the club not so long ago, could be having a costly effect on our title rivals. Whilst all managers strive for success, it is the pressures of the job that urge managers beyond imaginable realms to go out and achieve it. There is no doubt Fergie felt the pressure before that FA Cup win in 1990, and has likely felt it every year since. Wenger is given all the time in the World to develop his young players in to title contenders, with their mentality echoing something of the “next season” talk we hear from the dippers in Merseyside.
It is important to remember though that whilst Wenger is crafting a young side by choosing not to spend the wealth his club makes available to him, Sir Alex Ferguson is doing exactly the same. Close to half of the 25 players representing United this season are 24-years-old and younger, with equally bright, if not brighter, futures. Not including the keepers, who are both 30+ (with United having Ben Foster for the future regardless), there is less than a year in the average ages of the players who drew 2-2 at the Emirates earlier this season.
I can’t complain though. As for Wenger’s refusal to spend big, long may it continue. There is no trophy dished out in May for competing for the title with the cheapest squad, rather, the trophy awarded to the team who proves they’re the best over 38 games. With 29 games played, United are placed first in the league, and it would take a brave man to bet against that being the case come the end of the season.