Arsenal and Manchester United, who shared an intense title rivalry in the 2000s, meet tonight withsomething else in common in the 2020s: A continuing and complex challenge to regain that status after losing legendary managers.
Arsenal, of course, lostArsene Wenger by decision, opting to end his reign after a long period of under-achievement and growing unrest in the stands.
United, by contrast, always knew the Alex Ferguson era was ending as he approached retirement.
But neither club, despite that forewarning, has succeeding in replacing them and have made similar mistakes in trying to fill the void.
It’s a particularly alarming realisation for Arsenal, given they had years to sit and watch United making those mistakes since Ferguson left in 2013 but took little or no action to avoid replicating them.
Here we look at how both clubs have coped with the job of replacing a managerial legend and how they have ended up in such a mess as a result of failing to implement a viable strategy — going into tonight’s match in 12th and fifth positions in the Premier League respectively with no chance of challenging for the title — and no real sign of finding a long-term solution to the problem...
Replacing a legend was never going to be easy for either club but what is astonishing is that neither had an effective plan or strategy in place to cope; after all they had long enough to think about it.
Perhaps they simply didn’t spot the depth of the problems in their own squads, but that is hardly mitigation.
At United, the board was blinkered enough to believe the squad that won a title in Ferguson’s final year in charge was good enough to continue, and best served by finding a like-for-like replacement. A man who would continue the job and not rock the boat.
The reality was Ferguson had hugely over-achieved that year with a squad that was on its last legs and needed new direction and a major overhaul — just as Arsenal’s does even now.
Since then, United have floundered from one manager or another with little or nothing connecting them.
How can you think Mourinho is the answer one minute and Solkjaer the next?
It doesn’t make sense.
Arsenal, by contrast, appointed a good manager in Unai Emery but failed to recognise the biggest problem was a squad left complacent by 20 years of a one-voice management policy. Obsessed by interviews and CVs, the Gunners appointed a good man but not one suitable for the job required — which was to inspire his players and give them new direction.
Ah, now, here’s the crux — because recruitment is at the heart of both these clubs’deepest problems.
What Arsenal fan hasn’t shouted at the television on transfer deadline day, screaming ‘why haven’t we signed a defender?’
It seems a terrible blind spot.
But United, in many ways, are worse. At least Arsenal have bought players who fit the Wenger model (even if his obsession with the front five and a reluctance to spend what the market demanded was a frustration).
At Old Trafford the hierarchy has spent as if blindfolded — taking a ‘pin a tail on the donkey’ approach to transfers that has been bewildering. The list of players missed because they reacted too slowly is a long one and the number signed on a whim, and without thought for the future, an alarming trend.
Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so popular with fans, was something of a farce.
What club with a five-year plan in place, and the patience to stick to it, signs a veteran superstar for one year only to try and patch things up?
Now, this should be an area in which Arsenal have more wriggle room than their rivals.
The ‘Arsenal way’ we all talk about is really the‘Arsene way’ — the club has always been innovative and forward-leaning in the past but also open to a variety of styles. Nobody complained when George Graham played a different way, or when Wenger transformed the style, or when Herbert Chapman brought in modern ideas.
There’s a real opportunity for Mikel Arteta, as the new Arsenal manager, to bring in his own style and create his own legacy. In fact, Emery’s biggest fault was his inability to impose a style on his team — he tried everything and settled on nothing.
United is different.
Ferguson didn’t invent the United way — it was in place in the days of the Busby Babes and probably long before. So bringing in a pragmatist like Mourinho or a stylist like Van Gaal was never really going to work. Solskjaer knows that but doesn’t yet have the full toolset to achieve the style he yearns for.
Another crucial area in which both clubs seem to be paralysed by football’s need for instant gratification.
Who is responsible for thinking about how United or Arsenal will look in five or 10 years’ time?
Who plots a path to success in the way Manchester City have done, taking more than first team results into account?
City, from a low start, are catching and overtaking these football giants not just on the pitch but off it — and that’s what strategy can do for you.
It would be a major surprise if City haven’t already identified who they want to replace Pep Guardiola one day, but both United and Arsenal have floundered around making it up as they go.
There’s a big opportunity now for the Gunners, with Arteta in place, to build something longer term, as they did under Wenger.
Well, if you were a football doctor you’d hardly be sending them away with a clean bill of health and a ‘see me again in 12 months’.
On the face of it Arsenal, down in 12th place and at their zenith, seem to be worse off; but Arteta feels like more of a long-term solution than Solksjaer, even if the journey will be a painful one to start with.
Neither of these clubs have found a solution yet and it would be a major surprise if either were title challengers next year.
Liverpool, who one day long into the future will have to replace Jurgen Klopp, would do well to take note...