If anyone needed proof that the current Manchester United side is superior to its north London rivals, then Sunday’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal provided it. Even taking into account the multiple absences in the Gunners’ squad, the result offered a stark demonstration of the gulf in quality between Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad and that of Frenchman Arsène Wenger.
There have, inevitably perhaps, been calls for Wenger’s head from disappointed Arsenal fans who find themselves humiliated by an unthinkable result and disillusioned at a transfer window that has seen the sale of top-quality players with little in the way of replacements. The Gunners’ fans cannot understand how their club has fallen so far from the glory of Wenger’s ‘untouchable’ team of 2003-2004, which went an entire Premier League season undefeated.
For years in the late 1990s and early 2000s Arsenal fans enjoyed a shared dominance of the Premier League with United, which was finally ended in 2005 by the revolutionary spending of Abramovich-backed Chelsea. This event dramatically transformed the Premier League as Chelsea radically raised the bar needed for Premier League success with an end-of-season haul of 95 points.
At the time, this downturn in fortune for both United and Arsenal seemed insurmountable. But it was the managers’ reactions to the setback that has truly set them apart. While Ferguson rose to and overcame the challenge, Wenger floundered and has never recovered.
In the mid 2000s, sensing a danger to his United empire, Ferguson looked to the future, selling established players such as David Beckham, Roy Keane, Tim Howard and Ruud van Nistelrooy and replacing them with younger talent including Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Edwin Van der Sar. These players were to form the backbone of a side that would win four titles between 2006 and 2011.
Furthermore, Ferguson adapted to the European game, developing tactics including a three-man midfield that provided solidity and a fluid attacking unit that rendered Ronaldo, Rooney and Carlos Tevez almost unplayable. This was crucial in reaching three Champions League Finals during the latter part of the decade despite a move away from the rigid 4-4-2 that Ferguson employed to great effect in 1999.
Wenger, on the other hand, was far less successful in adapting to the new challenge posed by Abramovich’s Chelsea. Players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Martin Keown were never satisfactorily replaced and although talented players including Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie helped mount some title challenges, there was always a negative feeling in the Arsenal camp. This led to a repeated and dramatic mid-season collapse in belief, such as that in 2008.
Today, the Premier League is faced with a new challenge – that of Manchester City and the club’s seemingly bottomless pocket. Ferguson has been charged in recent years with some hugely daunting tasks. He has replaced the magnificent Cristiano Ronaldo, along with the ever negative Tevez and has dealt with the retirement of ageing talents: Paul Scholes, Van der Sar and Gary Neville. Players such as Ryan Giggs and even Rio Ferdinand are in the twilight of their careers. At least with United.
Ferguson is, however, a master at creating new teams, keeping the best elements of an old team and merging them with new talent. Once again, he has succeeded in doing this, offering United fans a strong sense of optimism for the future and for the challenge that City will inevitably pose. He has signed young players of great quality such as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young; brought through home-grown talents Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, and has coupled them with the undoubted ability of existing players.
Wenger, on the other hand, has been forced into selling two of his best players – Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Talk of signing 26-year-old striker Park Chu-Young and 28-year-old full-back André Santos will do little to encourage Arsenal fans as they lick their wounds from Sunday’s 8-2 defeat. Once again, it seems, Wenger and his team are failing to adapt whilst Ferguson’s United are facing the challenge head on.
It seems ‘The Professor’ has much to learn if he is to recreate a team to challenge that of his old adversary Sir Alex.