One of the most fascinating subplots of the Premier League over the last two decades has been the duel between Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. While United may have won more titles than anyone else since the mid 90s, Arsenal under Wenger have been a classic ‘there or thereabouts’ type team, arguably as a direct result of good management.
Wenger was appointed in 1996, and had an immediate impact. In his first full season in charge, the Gunners took out the Premier League and F.A Cup. It was no coincidence that Wenger was also awarded Manager of the Season. In all during his 16 year tenure to date, they have won 3 Leagues and 4 Cups, not bad considering they had to compete with the Red Devils.
Why talk about Wenger here and now, when news has just broken that Sir Alex Ferguson is potentially to retire at the end of the season? Because Wenger has been integral to the confirmation of the greatness of Ferguson. Every great needs a foil, a Lex Luthor to their Superman, and that is what Wenger provided for Ferguson. He was the benchmark, above which Sir Alex had to repeatedly climb over to be a champion.
The Scot has seen off every challenger who he has come up against, outlasting periods and incarnations of teams that could have toppled United from the throne. Each time his club has looked in danger of losing the mantle of being the most feared team in the league, Ferguson has stuck around long enough to beat them. Newcastle and Blackburn in the early 90s, Arsenal in the late 90s and early 200s, Chelsea in the middle years of the decade and recently Manchester City, all have overtaken and then been overtaken in turn by United.
And still Wenger survives, and keeps Ferguson honest. Since he has been in charge of Arsenal, they have never finished outside the top 4. That they have stayed near the top for so long is a testament to canny scouting of young talent, smart transfers and inspirational management from Wenger. Arsenal under Wenger have followed a policy of “not buying superstars, but making them.” He is also credited with revolutionising tactics in English football.
By the same token though, Wenger must be wondering where his next trophy is coming from. Arsenal haven’t won a thing since 2005, and it is looking increasingly unlikely that they will in a Premier League dominated by teams far more wealthy than them. Chelsea and City are famously swimming in cash, and United have a global brand that brings in money from all sorts of merchandise, sponsorships and endorsements. Arsenal are wealthy, but not in the same league.
So with Ferguson potentially gone, there is only one great manager still in the Premier League. Sure, there are those like Benitez, Mancini and Moyes, as well as the potential return of Mourinho. But by and large, none of them can say that their achievements rank with those of Wenger. Furthermore none of them paired with Wenger conjures up any sort of rivalry.
The Premier League will be a poorer place without Ferguson. His grim humour aside, he was a human face to put on a drama between two teams, and two communities around those teams. Arsenal vs United was exemplified by their two managers, and was a dramatic story to tell about a league that bills itself as the best in the world. Wenger remains, but he will always be defined by his great rivalry with Ferguson.