Alex Ferguson The Great; Arsene Wenger The Very Good
January 1, 2011 4 Comments
Arsene Wenger will never be a great manager. To be a ‘great’ you must become a legend of the game, and sit alongside such masters as Shankly and Busby and, of course, the top division’s long-reigning king, Alex Ferguson.
One characteristic seems to define great managers more than any other: pragmatism. The ability to be flexible in approach and adaptable to circumstances, and to make the right choices at the right time. Pragmatism is the quality that allows great managers to keep adapting, and keep wining. Arsene Wenger has many qualities, and his ability to spot talent and nurture young players is arguably the best in the game. But his downfall is that his particular ideology – of wanting to play the game and build a team in the ‘right’ manner – gets in the way of success.
For Ferguson, success is defined by winning, and winning at all costs. The allure of winning is his life-blood, and is what has motivated him to continue pursuing success at 70. Two weeks ago he became Manchester United’s longest serving manager and has stated that he has no intention of hanging up the hairdryer yet.
Throughout his trophy-laden career, Ferguson has repeatedly shown that he will make quick decisions, and will take big risks, if he thinks it will bring victory. His infamous mind-games wind up opponents, notably cracking Kevin Keegan and Rafa Benitez during title races. He is willing to spend big money on signing players, and (juan sebastian veron-excluding) is usually right. Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney were both costly signings, but have more than paid dividends. Most importantly, he has a tremendous ability to construct new generations of title-winning teams in a short space of time.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, is driven on not solely by the desire to win, but by a frustrating determination to prove that he, and his way of playing football and running a club, is the right way. Arsenal has become a vehicle for his megalomaniac project. The satisfaction of the fans has been lost in the stifling gaze of Wenger’s vision, a vision defined by the notion that success should be achieved by developing players, not buying them. Incredibly, Wenger hasn’t spent more than £14m on any player (and that was Thierry Henry), and, apart from Andrei Arshavin, has not spent more than £10.5m on a player since Sylvain Wiltord ten years ago. The approach is extremely admirable, and Arsenal have built a new stadium on the back of it. It is also a refreshing antidote in the megabucks world of Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour. And it can work. Witness the ‘Invincibles’ crafted by Wenger in the 03/04 season, and the current outstanding Barcelona side, which includes eight academy players.
But Wenger has become obsessed by his long-term plan, to the point that Arsenal have been next season’s champions for the last 5 years, and the trophy cabinet has been gathering dust during that time. Wenger refuses to accept what Ferguson has always realised – that a team’s style of play should not be dictated by idealism, but by realism. Ferguson has endeavoured to improve his young talent by bringing in players that are already at their peak, and he changes the way his team plays accordingly. Manchester United with Berbatov and Rooney up front are a very different proposition to the side embodied by Christiano Ronaldo, and by Beckham, Keane, Cole et al. before him. Meanwhile Wenger, apparently restricted by the narrow-minded path to success that he has set out for himself, refuses to accept that to win you must be willing to change and adapt. He is still seeking to build a side that can repeat the very same style of awesome attacking football played by his title-winning team
As a result, the development of Arsenal’s new generation has been slowed. The squad lacks the experience that is vital to the education of young footballers, the same experience that Ferguson so clearly values and treasures in Scholes and Giggs; and some players have become disillusioned by the lack of investment, as demonstrated by the departure of Alex Hleb and Matheiu Flamini just when they were reaching their peak. Whereas Ferguson understands the off-the-pitch value of senior players, Wenger discards them like ageing cars, consigned to the scrap heap when they turn 30 – just ask Robert Pires – because they no longer fit his vision of fast-paced football powered by youth.
And what of Arsenal now? Wenger has finally built a team that seems capable of challenging for the title, although few believe that they have the tenacity necessary to win the league. The doubters were reminded why they are dubious as Arsenal failed to hold on to a 2-1 lead against ten-man Wigan on Wednesday night. Once again, Wenger’s refusal to adapt, and to spend big money on a high quality goalkeeper or centre-back, will probably cost them. And at the end of the season, tired of the lack of success, and having seen his side inevitably mullered by his native Barcelona for the second season running, Cesc Fabregas will surely depart for the Nou Camp. Wenger will once again have lost the jewel in his self-styled crown and the building process will have to begin again. Until he accepts that great investment can lead to even greater return, Wenger will remain very good, very good indeed, but never a pragmatist; never a great.
by Ben Williams