How does Arsene Wenger compare to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson?
"I really feel sorry for him because I think he's shown outstanding qualities, and I think he has handled the whole situation," Sir Alex Ferguson said of longtime rival Arsene Wenger on May 21, as Arsenal prepared for life without Champions League football for the first time in the Frenchman's 21-year reign. "I don't know many that have done that."
It was a remark that would have been inconceivable in the late 1990s and 2000s, when the managers of Manchester United and Arsenal could not speak about each other without bile spilling over. But now, following Ferguson's retirement in 2013, the two great survivors of English football are hugely complimentary of each other.
After Wenger signed for two more years following an FA Cup victory over Chelsea, he will push towards 22 years in the Premier League, beyond Ferguson's 21. Of all the era's great managers, there is only one the other can be compared with.
Only in terms of the FA Cup, won seven times to five, has Wenger managed to surpass Ferguson's trophy haul.
Manchester United won 13 titles to Wenger's three, as well as two Champions Leagues and a European Cup Winners' Cup, while Wenger drew a European trophy blank. Arsenal lost in the 2000 UEFA Cup final on penalties to Galatasaray and 2-1 in the 2006 Champions League final to Barcelona.
Wenger has never won a League Cup -- Ferguson has four -- having lost in the finals of 2007 and 2011 to Chelsea and Birmingham City, respectively.
When it comes to Double wins, Ferguson won three to Wenger's two, and one of those turned into a Treble in 1999.
During Wenger's peak era of 1998-2005, in which time he collected three league titles and four FA Cups, Ferguson won four titles and two FA Cups. Before Chelsea's 2003 cash injection from Roman Abramovich and the 2004 arrival of Jose Mourinho, Arsenal and United were dominant, but only Ferguson, who won five subsequent titles, kept competing at the top.
As Chelsea and Manchester City spent their billionaire owners' funds, Ferguson and Wenger had to build squads in the face of financial constraints. Both preached the concept of "value in the market."
Wenger lost previous star purchases such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira after Arsenal set out to build the Emirates Stadium in the mid-2000s and could not repeat the acumen he showed during his early years in charge. Andrei Arshavin, Denilson, Gervinho and Sebastien Squillaci were cheap signings who left the Gunners short of being able to challenge for top honours, unlike Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, the players who helped Arsenal compete and often surpass Ferguson's United.
Ferguson can be lauded for overseeing the development of the "Class of '92," but he bought his fair share of misfits. Mame Biram Diouf, Bebe and a jaded Michael Owen were poor replacements for Cristiano Ronaldo, cashed in for £80 million to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, as the debt-laden ownership of the Glazer family meant the manager could not spend like City or Chelsea.
His previous greatest flop was Juan Sebastian Veron, signed for £28.1m in 2001 from Lazio, when Ferguson actually wanted to pinch Vieira from Wenger. Ferguson made a success of buying players who could last the majority of their careers at United: Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick. Wenger, forced to lose the likes of Henry, Vieira and Cesc Fabregas, has not enjoyed that luxury.
Neither man will be recalled as a great tactical innovator. Wenger, until he recently switched to a 3-4-3 formation, played the same style with which he arrived in England -- a passing game employing quick attackers after dominating midfield, always with four at the back -- though that changed the club's defensive ethos dramatically.
Ferguson, while often pragmatic, was little different for much of his time in charge, though he did switch to 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 when required and especially in key Champions League matches. When United dominated in the 1990s, they did so in an era of 4-4-2 and with the best, most motivated players available, swept all before them in England.
The same was true of Wenger in his early years, with freedom allowed for Henry and Dennis Bergkamp to go where space could be found. Ferguson would later do the same with Ronaldo and Rooney.
When it came to playing against each other, Ferguson eventually had Wenger's number after initially struggling against Arsenal in early meetings, which included an Overmars winner in a 1-0 Arsenal win at Old Trafford that all but decided the 1997-98 title race.
In his 2013 autobiography, Ferguson explained his superiority over Wenger: "We would say to the players: 'Stay with the runner, then intercept the pass.' Then we counter-attacked quickly."
In their 48 meetings, Ferguson won 22 matches to Wenger's 15 and lost just one of the last 11.
Both were autocrats in the classic style of the traditional football manager, running the club from almost top to bottom and almost certainly the last of their kind.
After the Glazer family bought United in May 2005, Ferguson repeatedly said that he preferred reporting to them over the PLC that United had been previously. The Glazers left him to get on with things, just as he liked it, and he was prepared to take the hit on transfer spending.
Wenger often talks as if there was no Arsenal before him. "I think I have built this club," he said in March, ignoring that in 1996 he took over what was traditionally London's biggest club that had won league titles, FA Cups and European trophies in recent years.
Instead, he has built Arsenal in his own image, altering its outlook to the cosmopolitan, global club it has since become, and he played a leading role in the building of the new Emirates stadium.
Dealing with the media
Ferguson was truly fearsome, but he usually knew when to drop a line that would take headlines and pull the agenda his way. For the latter part of his Old Trafford tenure, he refused to carry out a postmatch news conference and was at odds with the BBC for seven years over a 2004 documentary that questioned the business activities of his son, Jason. He was not in football to make life easy for journalists, instead making use of them when the occasion demanded.
As time has moved on, Wenger's dealings with the media have begun to resemble Ferguson. Where visits to London Colney training ground once found him happy to answer all questions on all subjects, a news conference is nowadays strictly on the clock. Wenger, while still giving considered responses, is far more guarded than before. As questions about his future rained down, he responded with a street-fighting defiance that Ferguson would have been proud of.
At some point, Arsenal will discover if replacing Wenger will be as costly as United have found trying to live with the legacy of Ferguson to be. It has cost the Glazer family approaching £500 million in transfer fees, under three managers, and the club have been nowhere near competing for a league title.
Arsenal have not been able to compete for a title for some years with Wenger around, and the club's decline from being one of England's two great powers counts against him, even in light of Chelsea's and Man City's rise, that Emirates funding and the often reluctant financing of American owner Stan Kroenke.
Ferguson delegated in a manner with which Wenger has struggled -- and stayed successful. Even his greatest doubters among United fans knew that the club could never be the same, dominating force without him. That has not been the case with Wenger, with a highly vocal minority wishing him away.
He does, however, have a significant case to be his club's greatest manager, ahead of the likes of Herbert Chapman, Bertie Mee and George Graham. Ferguson, meanwhile, competes only with Sir Matt Busby, the father of the modern United and winner of the 1968 European Cup.
When it comes to an overall comparison of the pair's long reigns, Wenger has failed to deliver success as consistently as Ferguson could. Even his extended stay at Arsenal will not give him the chance to catch up the achievements of his great rival.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.