19 May 2013. A date Manchester United fans look back upon even today and will continue to do so for the rest of time. Given how the club has lurched from extreme to extreme since, most of the looking back will be of the regretful, what if kind.
For that was the day the great Sir Alex Ferguson took to the dugout for the last time as a United manager at the Hawthorns against West Brom, thus bringing down the curtains on perhaps the most successful managerial career in football history. And the result was a thrilling 5-5 draw, where a certain Belgian by the name of Romelu Lukaku led the home team’s fightback with a superb hat-trick. Ir was a fitting way to end such a career, one that relied so much on a swashbuckling style and tactics to bring home trophies by the truckload.
13 May 2018. Five years on from the indomitable Scot’s retirement, perhaps his greatest nemesis, and someone who was equally — or even more — important in changing the way football was played in England, called it quits as well. A 1-0 away win at promoted Hudderfield ensured that Arsene Wenger went into managerial retirement equally pleased, if not with the same kind of reputation intact, as his long-time adversary Ferguson.
The scorer of the winner that day? Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang, who has turned out to be one of the best, and certainly one of the last, gifts that the Frenchman left behind for his successor. While his decline over the last decade of his reign was well documented, Wenger remained as respected and loved by supporters, media, players — both current and former — and pundits alike till his last day in charge of the Gunners.
Cut to December 2018, and though it is relatively early to say that Wenger’s successor Unai Emery has been a great replacement, the early signs show that he is well prepared to lead Arsenal into the future. However, over at Old Trafford, things have lurched from bad to worse. Current manager Jose Mourinho has had a disastrous third season at the club, and that is nothing new, for he is a manger known to disintegrate and cause a mess during his third year at all his clubs.
But the scale to which events have unfolded in Manchester must worry not only fans but the football neutrals as well. For the club has become something akin to a jenga game, just a missing block away from totally caving in.
Even comparing the first six months of the respective successors’ tenures, a time when United were stuttering and losing any semblance of that fear factor under the care of the ‘Chosen One’ David Moyes while Arsenal remain thoroughly entertaining and unbeaten in 20+ games, there only seems to be one club that has gotten it’s succession plan right.
So with that in mind, let us look at a couple of reason why Arsenal will not suffer like United have after the retirement of their greatest managers, respectively…
#1 Ownership patterns
The Glazer family, who took over United back in 2005, has been nothing but leeches on the very fabric of the club, sucking and draining any signs of positivity and life off the club with its business first mentality and callous use of the clubs brand name to fuel its coffers.
For an insight into how destructive they have been to the club, sample this: the Glazers’ takeover has taken away more than £1bn out of United since 2005, not too dissimilar to the amount that Sheikh Mansour has invested into city rivals Manchester City since his own takeover of the blue part of Manchester a decade back.
Such was the state of affairs that even United’s world-renowned academy has been lagging behind that of City’s, which has recently been producing some truly exciting talents, apart from being the first choice for most former players and legends for their children to learn the game.
City’s band of youngsters have also been sweeping many of the age-group gongs on offer, and it was only recently that United have increased spending on their academy to £24m a year so as to match their rival’s production line and bring back the glory years that led to such exciting talent as the ‘Class of 1992′ coming in and becoming world beaters.
As long as the Glazers are majority owners, things do not look to improve for United, and the family will continue to use the club as a money-spinning machine that brings them as much money as possible, without care for what happens on the field or the fans’ interests.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have not had any such issues with their ownership, though stories filtering out regarding the recent change in majority ownership may be a bit worrisome for fans. Until this year, the Gunners had been in an unusual ownership position, with a pair of billionaires owning 97.13 per cent shares of the club.
Stan Kroenke, an American, was the majority shareholder with 67.09 per cent, while Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov had 30.04 per cent against his name. However, in a nod to the hipster years of the 60s and 70s, the two owners have been involved in a football ownership version of the cold war.
The American has wantonly refused to allow his Russian counterpart onto the board, which has meant that Usmanov’s stake have remained useless in terms of influence and power. The latter did offer to buy out Kroenke but was rejected, and ultimately — and perhaps wisely — decided that it was of no use cling on to his stake in the club.
Not helped by the fact that no one in their sane minds would buy his share to again be frozen out, Usmanov decided to sell his shares to Kroenke for about £600m, thus making himself hundreds of millions in profits, based on his initial investment.
And though Kroenke has not really been a popular owner, the fact that he has overseen a relatively smooth succession plan for Wenger, while also ensuring in the first place that the Frenchman did not outlive his tenure any further than 2018, shows that he is much better prepared to lead a club of Arsenal’s stature towards a bright future, and perhaps regain their lost glory in terms of silverware as well.
#2 Relationship between club and managers
One big reason that Arsenal fans can be happy with Kroenke is that fact that the club was able to bring in Sven Mislintat more than a year ago to aid Wenger with his football operations and transfers.
And while it could always have been the case that the former Dortmund recruitment expert was brought in keeping in mind Wenger’s eventual exit and successor as well, he has proven his worth and showed why he is so highly rated in footballing circles.
Having already impressed in Germany by scouting and bringing in the likes of Aubameyang, Shinji Kagawa and Ousmane Dembele to the Westfalenstadion for a decade, the German joined the Gunners as head of recruitment with responsibilities across the first team and academy.
His job involves closely working with the manager, plus other coaches, the background analytics team and the global scouting network, and he has also been an unqualified success in his first year in London, ensuring that Arsenal nabbed their transfer targets much before the deadline and avoiding the mistake that repeatedly became a point of consternation during the final throes of the Wenger era. And this good work can be seen in how easily the team have transformed under Emery’s tutelage, which only spells money for fans of the club.
United, meanwhile, are stuck with Ed Woodward, who orchestrated their debt-loading takeover, and under who the club is floundering in all aspects, apart from the commercial one.
The former banker has been able to increase the clubs profile and commercial tie ups, thus making United a branding behemoth who can do no wrong when it comes to profile and revenues, but he has grossly neglected the most important aspect, which is to ensure the smooth running of the various teams, especially the senior one, while also facilitating transfer activities as per the needs of the requirements of the manager, Jose Mourinho.
But ever since a relatively successful first two years were capped by the Portugese boss signing a new contract at the beginning of this year, things have just gone from one disappointment to another. Woodward, without his wisdom and experience in footballing matters, has overruled plenty of transfers targets that Mourinho has set, thus creating friction between the two.
Mourinho is a known complainer, and after a disastrous start to the season, the effects of which are still continuing, he has completely laid the blame at the feet of Woodward. While it would be remiss to say that the manager is blameless, far from that, Woodward, with his transfer incompetence and utterly shambolic dealing when it comes to first team matters has contributed to a situation where it seems neither the manger is interested in staying, nor do the players want to plump for their boss and pull in one direction.
All this has meant that results have suffered this season, which is just an extension of the state of matters since Ferguson left, and with plans (which made so much sense) to bring in a director of football shelved, it looks like this mess around Old Trafford will only get worse before seeing any light at the end of one dark tunnel.
Two intense rivals, each with a storied history and having equally adept at collecting silverware, were at the crossroads within five years of each there, and while one has embraced the challenges of continuity and simple succession plans, the other has forgotten what got it so much success and adoration in the first place, all the while looking to just snort in as much money as possible with scant regard for what the future holds.
This is the story of Arsenal and Manchester United so far, and perhaps the 2018/19 season end will tell us more about where the two mammoth institutions are headed.