Arsene Wenger's success and Louis van Gaal's failure are linked
They meet as iconoclastic, idiosyncratic figures. Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger can be called many things, but each is certainly unique.
No other Premier League managers have ever really travelled down the path either has plotted. They have arrived as exotic outsiders, Wenger to a climate of suspicion and Van Gaal to a euphoric welcome, and then confounded initial expectations. The Arsenal manager was celebrated when his second season at the helm culminated in winning the league and FA Cup double in 1997-98. His Manchester United counterpart has been castigated as his sophomore year seems certain to end in an undignified exit after underachievement.
And yet perhaps the paradoxical element is that Wenger's finest feat and Van Gaal's failure are linked. Each constructed a team that was utterly unfamiliar to English audiences, an other-worldly side that were devised with concepts that barely figured in thinking on an isolated island before. Wenger's Invincibles, who completed the 2003-04 league season undefeated, were his greatest team. There is a case for arguing Van Gaal's current collective are United's worst since the 1980s. Each stands out for being a product of different thinking.
Wenger cut an alien figure from the start, one whose prowess left the old school distinctly confused. By 2004, the Thin White Duke of the Premier League had devised his most unconventional team yet, ostensibly conforming to the English formula of 4-4-2 but in reality the product of radical transformation.
One striker, Thierry Henry, was a converted left-winger with a tendency to wander back to his old turf and who, to the consternation of selfish goal-hangers everywhere, had set the division's assist record the previous season. The other, Dennis Bergkamp, was a No. 10 who wandered ever deeper into midfield and who scored only four league goals; it was hardly the conventional recipe for success. Years before talk about false nines became commonplace, Arsenal in effect played large swathes of games with no No. 9 at all.
The nominal wingers, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, eschewed the touchline to cut infield. It was a model later adopted by Manchester City, when David Silva and Samir Nasri were their title-winning, flank-vacating wide men. At times, it felt that Arsenal had brought the Brazilian 4-2-2-2 shape to England.
Their full-backs betrayed their roots in more advanced positions. Ashley Cole had been a winger, Lauren a central midfielder. Even one centre-back, Kolo Toure, had spent much of the previous season as a backup midfielder; the Ivorian was surprised when Wenger, that master of reinvention, rebranded him as a defender. Only Sol Campbell was really an out-and-out stopper.
A predecessor, George Graham, was prone to arguing that Wenger needed an old-fashioned centre-back, a traditional goal scorer and another tackling midfielder. He saw a new-age side through the prism of his 20th-century teams and struggled to understand what he was witnessing.
Because a decade before Brendan Rodgers picked Liverpool teams in which up to eight players were midfielders by trade, Wenger was doing it. He was an idealist, an innovator and an influence. Some of his ideas seemed to have their genesis in Dutch theories of Total Football.
Perhaps Van Gaal's do, too. They just seem to have grown warped over the years. He can choose wingers such as Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia as full-backs or a midfielder, in Daley Blind, in the middle of defence. Yet versatile players are not permitted to interchange positions. His teams have possession without penetration.
United have had the most possession in the Premier League (56 percent), but average only 11.6 shots per game, the 13th highest, and are recording just 1.26 goals per game. Only four teams have scored fewer times at home. Indeed, United endured a spell of 11 consecutive goalless first halves at Old Trafford in all competitions until recently.
There have been plenty of low-scoring sides in England before. Yet the majority were weak, starved of possession or defensive, relying on counter-attacks and set pieces to make a breakthrough. In a country where possession for possession's sake has long seemed an alien theory, no one had constructed an outfit with such an emphasis on sideways passing. Never in England has a team had so much of the ball and done so little with it.
It is little wonder that many are confused. "The style of no football has no resemblance to Manchester United at all," tweeted Rio Ferdinand on Saturday. Wenger's style of football once bore no resemblance to Arsenal either; not to Graham's 1-0 specialists. Yet his changes were an upgrade, whereas Van Gaal's have been a downgrade. Some of his stylistic alterations -- using a back three, the first time the club had since Sir Matt Busby abandoned the W-M formation -- were novel, but the broader problem lies in the bigger picture, the sense of stasis, the feeling his players are constrained, ordered to play a brand of football they neither like nor understand.
Perhaps the definitive Van Gaal United performance came at Stamford Bridge last season. United had 70 percent of the ball. Chelsea won 1-0. "In my opinion it was the best performance we have had this season," Van Gaal said. An altogether more streetwise Jose Mourinho said: "It was the game we wanted and expected."
And that is Van Gaal's United: predictable. It is where differences with Wenger's finest Arsenal team are at their starkest. The speed, technique, fluency and imagination of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Ljungberg made them a beguilingly brilliant proposition. Their unorthodoxy was met with scepticism from the conservatives but Wenger had the ultimate defence for his left-field ideas: success, not to mention aesthetic appeal and the sense of startling progress.
His players had an eloquence on the pitch, perhaps because they were liberated. Wenger enabled them whereas Van Gaal has constrained his charges. Strangers have altered the identity of clubs whose character seemed entrenched. One has been a revelation. The other may be an aberration.
Now Wenger's reign is into its 20th year, and Van Gaal's will surely end after his second. One outsider has become the establishment figure, the longest-serving manager in England, and the other seems ever more of an oddity. They have imported ideas but whereas Wenger's eventual successor should build on much of his work, the chances are that Van Gaal's replacement will be charged with undoing most of his.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.