Wenger left Arsenal in better shape than Ferguson left United
Success new manager Emery has had with club partly due to Wenger’s foundations
Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson presents Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger with a gift to mark his retirement in April 2018. Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal
Towards the end of Arsenal’s north London derby victory on Sunday afternoon it was tempting to look away from the swarming red shirts on the pitch, past the packed-out stands, and catch a glimpse in the corner of your eyeline of a spectral figure in ankle-length quilted gown, a shadow on the touchline, a shape perched up on the highest lip of the stand, fingers fiddling at the zipper of his anorak, a slow smile beginning to spread across his hawk-like features.
Arsène: the legacy years. A few months into the reign of Unai Emery, the first post-Wenger season already looks like offering a more flattering reflection of Arsenal’s longest-serving manager than the shared angst of his later years.
Not that Wenger has been there to see it. It is a notable feature of his departure that this really has been a full stop. Wenger has been a ghost, an absence, spending his time being lionised in various exotic locales, doing TV work, and generally staying away from the reconditioned club he helped conceive, design and deliver.
With encouraging results so far. If Sunday afternoon was the most energising experience at the Emirates for this new-build Emery team, Wednesday night at Old Trafford represents the stiffest away trip yet, at a place where Arsenal haven’t won in the league since 2006. It is the next step in a daunting set of fixtures. As of last Sunday Arsenal have set off on a run of 11 league games to the start of February, five of which are Spurs at home, United away, Liverpool away, Chelsea at home and Manchester City away.
Old Trafford is a huge occasion in that context, as it is in other, less tangible ways. Already there has been a shift here. Throughout the dog days of the Wenger years Arsenal were so often the fall guys in these heavyweight fixtures, extras in someone else’s narrative. But for the first time in a decade they are the more fertile story here.
There isn’t a great deal of interest left in this deathly Manchester United, beyond the exact detail and timing of what seems an inevitable exit for José Mourinho. This has felt for some time like another dead end, a process of entropy that has been in train ever since the departure of United’s own long-serving colossus.
Talking of which, here’s an interesting idea. Perhaps Wenger left Arsenal in better shape than some may have wanted to see. It is a widespread mistake to assume Emery’s early success with this team reflects poorly on his successor, just as the agonies of David Moyes should reflect well on Ferguson.
In reality there is a case that Wenger’s lack of pot-hunting sense, his obsession with processes and financial caution, indeed many of the things that brought such frustration towards the end, might have been perfect for succession planning, the ideal gift to his successor.
If it has been easy for Emery to pull the loose threads and produce a team who are, with a little luck, unbeaten in 19 games then this is in part because he inherited an environment where the basics were already in place. The facts might not tally with the idea of Wenger running Arsenal into the ground. In reality he left the club with a strong squad of players, a fine and profitable stadium, an excellent training ground, sound recruitment structure (not all his doing) and good spirit with an absence of destructive egos. Plus of course no strings to bind his successor, no looming presence in the stands, just room to breathe and build from a sound base.
Wenger gave a first-team debut to 10 of the 13 outfield players who beat Spurs on Sunday. He signed the league’s top scorer, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose movement was a striking contrast with Harry Kane in his current mode, which involves spending a lot of time walking backwards, reaching out with his hands for someone to grapple and spin off, like a man in search of the bathroom light-switch late at night.
Wenger also left some decent defenders and a good spread of age ranges, not to mention enough depth in midfield to allow Emery to become increasingly brusque with Mesut Özil. When Özil was awarded his new deal Wenger suggested this was the “cheapest” way of having a player of Ozil’s type at the club. Which does overlook the option of hiring a handsomely groomed mannequin to sit on the bench; or just not having a player of Özil’s type at all, Emery’s favoured path.
To his credit Emery saw instantly that this team needed a proper defensive shield. He is clearly a far better judge of that kind of player: Lucas Torreira has been a revelation, a different level of footballer to Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin and other token Wenger-era midfield bolts. Emery has been helped in this by Sven Mislintat. The appointment of a head of recruitment may have irked Wenger at times, but Mislintat is clearly an expert in talent ID, his presence a strong contrast with United, where Ed Woodward and another have presided over an increasingly scattergun process of spend and hope.
These are the earliest of early days. But it does seem possible Arsenal might just avoid the angst-fuelled contortions of the immediate post-Fergie years. United are still strong enough to win on Wednesday night and ignite their own run through autumn into winter.
But for Arsenal the progress made under Emery is still significant, and a tribute to the structures already in place. Those more disgruntled supporters may well have “got back” their club; but it still bears the stamp and shape of a manager who stayed too long, who became a little worn by the end, but whose departure has left hope rather than confusion in his place.