Arsene Wenger has never looked further away from his ideal Arsenal send-off, and Arsenal are still suffering as a result of his tragic pursuit, writes Miguel Delaney.
In one of the most subtly damning passages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 autobiography, the Manchester United legend reflected on his grand rival Arsene Wenger with what seemed an unmistakable sense of disappointment.
Ferguson ended his Old Trafford career having beaten Arsenal in nine of the last 12 games and, given the respect and friendship that had grown between the two men over the previous decade, the Scot seemed to be almost lamenting the fact that the fire of their rivalry had so declined over the exact same period. Arsenal had just become too easy to beat, because Wenger had himself become too predictable.
“In later years we learned more about Arsenal’s thinking,” Ferguson said.
With the perception of their legacies now further apart than at any point since 1997, it seems Wenger himself could do with some of Ferguson’s thinking; at least in terms of the decisiveness to really define yourself.
Because, as Manchester United were preparing to face Barcelona in the 2010-11 Champions League final, the story goes that some at Old Trafford feared Ferguson might actually retire if his side won the game.
There would have been no more glorious way to bow out, after all; no finer final statement; no more lasting last word. Ferguson would have once more conquered Europe and, having already broken the English title record, he would also have matched Bob Paisley’s managerial record of three Champions League titles. It would have been the ultimate victory, the ultimate vindication, and the strongest possible claim to being the greatest manager of all time.
Except, it didn’t pan out like that.
Manchester United's Alex Ferguson is the number one coach in the world, according to Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola
Image credit: Reuters
Barcelona instead put forward their claim to being the greatest side of all time as they eviscerated United in a 3-1 that had more of the patterns of a 5-0, and remains one of the great team displays. Ferguson himself admitted that it was a long time since his team had been given a beating as bad as that, one that amounted to a humiliation. It was certainly no way to bow out. So, if Ferguson did have plans to retire, they were shelved.
The next season didn’t go too well either, though. Manchester City - who many felt the Scot always wanted to beat even more than Liverpool - had inverted so much recent history by snatching the title from United on the last day, in the very last second.
Ferguson couldn’t leave it like that and, perhaps already conscious of the decision he would take in November 2012, decided to depart from a usual policy. After four years of refusing to spend money on players over the age of 26, he went out and bought prime quality in Robin van Persie, to bring the league back. A 20th title for the club was quite a record, and almost as good a way of going as possible, so Ferguson said his goodbyes; his legacy strengthened.
That it was Wenger he took Van Persie off only adds to the symbolism of all this, but the real relevance is once again how far their careers have drifted in terms of legacy.
Because, really, that is what this is all about. Wenger is utterly determined to ensure his own legacy, but he has wanted to do it in a very specific and - typically - very idealised way. Ever since the sensational invincible season, and the type of transcendent achievement that represented, the Arsenal manager has had a vision of bringing through a core of young players to win it all. Circumstances intervened, however, and that core never got to come together. Wenger was almost in the catch-22 of needing young players to wait to properly come together, but those same players themselves feeling that was affecting their progress.
Arsenal did progress as a club, though. While that team never got to be properly built, an elite stadium was, to the point that Wenger had the funds to go and buy players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez celebrate
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It all meant the parameters changed too. It is no longer about winning with the right team, but just winning a title again. That is what it has come down to for Wenger. Just that one last vindication, to prove him right after all that time, to ensure he goes out in the right way.
The sad question, however, is whether it will ever actually come. At this stage, we don’t really need to get into another discussion over whether his principles are still as productive in the modern game. It’s gone beyond that. Even if they sign another Ozil or Sanchez-level player, after all, it seems more likely that those stars will be absorbed into Arsenal’s general level of rather sterile quality, rather than actually lifting them up to a title challenge.
The point is that, even if so many of this summer’s problems - from procrastination over buying players to a spate of injuries - are so familiar, that is all because the situation itself is actually almost unprecedented in football history.
One massive club are effectively delaying their future, so that one man can go down in history in the way he desires, with that going on for almost decade.
It’s genuinely hard to think of anything like it.
There are some parallels with Brian Clough’s desire to win an FA Cup with Nottingham Forest after a decade in the 1980s markedly similar to Wenger’s - right down to the construction of a new stand - but they were a very different club, at a very different point.
Arsenal are now a modern super-club, who should be at the forefront of the game, but instead feel stuck in time.
That is the case while there is a sense of movement and vibrancy at every one of their rivals. There is a sense of something happening.
Ferguson himself made something happen when there was even the slightest hint of getting into a similar situation as Wenger.
Arsene Wenger on the touchline for Arsenal
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He took control of his own legacy, but by properly taking on the opposition of the time.
Wenger has not done that. He is still acting as if the realities of the football calendar are just a temporary coincidence, and his team will come together in time, even if that is some indeterminate point in the future. That is best illustrated by the current wait for a centre-half and centre-forward, despite the anxious knowledge among the players that they have needed one all summer. That is not the best for Wenger's team, or his legacy.
He has acted as if the football world should bend to his ideals, rather than himself adapting to give himself the ideal farewell.
The tragic consequence is that he has never looked further away.