Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are the two longest-serving managers in the English Premier League. In a competition where even the highest achievers are dismissed after 3 years, their longevity is a testament to the level-headed policies of their clubs and their ability to adapt themselves to the changing environment in the Premier League.
In my view these two have firmly established themselves as legends in English football management and while it may not be obvious now, what they have achieved stands at a par with the likes of Ramsay, Clough and Shankly. As such, it’s interesting to note how similar and yet how different these two men are. This article takes a closer look at the two managers and their methods, and in the end you are welcome to offer your thoughts on their management skills.
Please note that we’re not here to discuss their current league situations or future transfer targets, only their managerial careers in England.
Ferguson v Wenger – Masters of Consistency
At various times of their managerial careers at Arsenal and Manchester United the methods and transfer strategies used by these managers has been called into question.
When Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea, Manchester United had just won the Premier League title. For the next 3 years United took a backseat as Arsenal (2004) and Chelsea (2005 and 2006) stormed to comprehensive title wins. During this time Manchester United also suffered in Europe, and both Ferguson’s transfer policy and his playing tactics (away from home and especially when playing in Europe) were roundly criticised.
Ferguson stuck to his guns, refining United’s playing style to a point where they reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2006-2007 and won the Champions League in 2007-2008, going unbeaten through the group stages. The principles hadn’t changed, but the players at his disposal had learned to adapt themselves to what was asked of them.
And after experimenting in the transfer market (Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson, take a bow), he returned to the basics and what worked best for him and since 2005 his transfer record has been near-impeccable.
As Ferguson’s United was recovering and adapting, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were unraveling post-2004. To his credit Arsene Wenger has consistently followed his own tactical principles that have served him so well over the years, and more often than not it’s the players’ inability to adapt to the requirements as opposed to the tactics that’s the problem.
In transfers Wenger’s record is fantastic – Clichy, Adebayor, Walcott, Nasri – players good enough to earn a first-team berth anywhere across Europe, and we haven’t even gotten to Fabregas yet. He buys who he knows will fit the bill at Arsenal, no knee-jerk panic buys for him, and given Arsenal’s problems in recent months and especially seeing the panicking at West Ham, Newcastle and Tottenham (to name a few), it’s a commendable attitude.
Alex Ferguson – Man of Character
The hallmark of Alex Ferguson’s team has been their fighting spirit and indomitable will, showcased perfectly in that memorable Champions League win in 1999. While playing ability is a close second, character definitely tops Ferguson’s list of important player attributes.
If you have any doubts, you only have to look at the current makeup of Manchester United, and his transfer signings in recent years as well as his choice of captains during his tenure at Manchester United. From Robson and Keane to his persistence with the likes of O’Shea, Park and Fletcher to his choice of first-team players in Vidic, Rio, Evra, Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Nani and Anderson, the teams at Manchester United are winners first and footballers second.
There is a problem with this approach, of course. At times Manchester United have visibly lacked playing ability on the pitch and in the squad with the gaffer preferring to use players with the ‘Manchester United attitude’ as opposed to players who might actually win them a few tough games. His loyalty to his players has also seen him lose out to some of the brightest young talent in the UK in recent years with both Bale and Ramsey heading to London for first-team football.
Arsene Wenger – Man of Talent
Wenger’s teams have won the most lavish praise across Europe (and possibly the world) for playing ‘beautiful football’ – a cliche but it encapsulates Wenger’s philosophy perfectly. Arsenal teams under Wenger have made technical ability and talent their domain, and merged with Wenger’s ability to instill self-belief and confidence in his players this is a frightening combination for any opposition (from Chelsea to Sheffield to Milan).
Age and experience are not the main issue here, nor is transfer spending. Instead, the emphasis on talent over character can lead to the club not having enough fighters to turn to during hard times – you need match-winners like Nasri but you also need fighters to balance the team spirit and outlook.
Ferguson and Wenger – Legends
Manchester United and Arsenal have a lot of ground to make up on Chelsea and Arsenal this season but that should not detract from the wonderful management careers these two legends of English football have had in leading their clubs. Today we might dismiss Ferguson and Wenger after a couple of bad seasons as ‘has-beens’ but only after they are gone, when we look back at their decades of winning trophies, the blind backing of their players, the criticism of referees, the occasional sniping and of course, the brilliant football they’ve given us – only then will we truly appreciate what the game is missing.
Messrs Ferguson and Wenger – you have done far more for football than the likes of Blatter and Scudamore and Platini (post-playing days) and Triesman. You gave us exciting football, you made us fall in love over and over again and your efforts have brought more fans to the game than any other manager of your era. Thank you.