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Sep 29, 2011

Wenger can take heart from Fergie

An illustrious manager teeters on the brink. Questions surround a man whose decisions once brooked no debate: is the revolutionary yesterday's man? Have his players lost their belief in him? Has his Midas touch in the transfer market deserted him? Is his future a depressing routine of diminishing returns before he retires, possibly not of his own volition, with his reputation reduced?

For Arsene Wenger in 2011, read Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005. The participants in the Premier League's longest-running and, at times, most vituperative rivalry can seem two halves of a whole, whether with implausible complaints, a penchant for attacking football energised by a youthful core or a distinct winning habit. Ferguson was sympathetic after Manchester United beat Arsenal 8-2, perhaps sensing the similarities with his own plight six years ago.

He was 63 and finishing his 19th year at Old Trafford when his problems mushroomed; Wenger is almost 62 and has just completed 15 years at Arsenal. Each suffered from the arrival of a moneyed contender. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea disturbed the duopoly at the top of the Premier League, now Manchester City's cash has meant Arsenal's top-four status is no longer guaranteed.

The Champions League has presented worries for both. In 2005-06, while Arsenal reached the final, United propped up their pool, scoring a mere three goals. The Gunners' current concern is less qualifying from their group than ensuring another invitation to Europe's most exclusive private party.

The greatest humiliations occurred on the domestic stage, however. Shipping eight goals at Old Trafford may have been the nadir for Arsenal - although conceding four at Blackburn might be more damning - while the low for Ferguson was a 4-1 thrashing at Middlesbrough. Defensive disasters are a common denominator. In the awful autumn of 2005, it was a moot point whether Mikael Silvestre or Rio Ferdinand was turning in the more incompetent performances, a battle that is being re-enacted by Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou and, against United, Carl Jenkinson.

Recruits at the back provided no immediate improvement. Patrice Evra's United debut was so traumatic he had to be replaced at half-time, while Nemanja Vidic could also be considered a slow starter. More recently, the one-paced Per Mertesacker struggled at Ewood Park while left-back Andre Santos' grasp of the offside trap appeared hazy at best.

Managers responsible for outstandingly astute signings were starting to have their acumen questioned. Ferguson had acquired David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Liam Miller and Dong Fangzhou over the previous couple of years. Now, whether or not his summer additions succeed, Wenger is burdened by Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci as well as the declining Tomas Rosicky and the home-grown, but unconvincing, Djourou. Like the United misfits, they are not of the calibre the club requires.

The criticisms are familiar. The manager is deemed to have an excessive faith in young players who appear unlikely to realise their potential, while some senior professionals waste their talent. Viewed retrospectively, it is easy to forget that Ferdinand occupied the same place in United affections that Andrei Arshavin does at Arsenal now; that some found Cristiano Ronaldo an endless source of frustration and most felt Darren Fletcher was nowhere near good enough. With a creative inspiration absent for much of the season - Paul Scholes then and Jack Wilshere now - it gave a more mundane look to a side which had offered more fantasy.

It hardly helped that there was a leadership void, even if Cesc Fabregas left Arsenal on amicable terms while Roy Keane's exit from Old Trafford was rather more explosive. Nor, indeed, is it easy when Chelsea have a habit of luring transfer targets to Stamford Bridge - many of Mourinho's men had been identified by Ferguson while Wenger was and remains an admirer of Juan Mata.

An all-powerful club seemed to have lost its pulling power. Moreover, the personnel problems seemed a constant, on or off the pitch. Carlos Queiroz became a lightning rod for Ferguson's detractors, not least because Keane was no fan, while an oft-voiced theory is that Wenger should shake up his long-serving backroom team.

Obstinacy, however, is a characteristic shared by the Frenchman and the Scot. It has often served Ferguson well, indeed United's most vital victory of the campaign came with a goal from the much-maligned Fletcher, defeating Chelsea the week after the humiliation at Middlesbrough. It was a hard-fought but rarely fluent display, showing the pragmatic side of Ferguson; Wenger, in comparison, can seem too much of a purist for his own good.

There are other differences in the historical match-up: in 2005-06, United never dropped out of the top six, finished second, and won a trophy, the Carling Cup; Arsenal would settle for all three now. The seeds of a remarkable renaissance were also planted. Ferguson made four crucial buys - Edwin van der Sar and Ji-Sung Park in the summer of 2005 followed by Evra and Vidic in the following January - and if it is unlikely Mertesacker and Santos will have the same impact, it is not unrealistic to expect them to improve. Over the course of their contracts, players like Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should offer much.

Ferguson plotted an idiosyncratically controversial path back to the top, falling out with the ultra-reliable Ruud van Nistelrooy, and held many a grudge against those who thought he was finished during those dark days, but his subsequent success cemented his legend. Wenger may not scale such heights again, but the lesson from history is that, no matter how unpromising their position, underestimating an all-time great can be a major mistake.

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