Arsene Wenger is afraid of what his life would look like in retirement, as he has no hobbies outside of football the way Alex Ferguson has horses, spends his holidays at Arsenal’s training grounds and nothing throws you diving into your work like going through a divorce. Jurgen Klopp is sitting there waiting and available as the most natural successor to create a new era of Arsenal, but Wenger undoubtedly will force Sam Kroenke to pry the club away from his cold, dead hands. Kroenke is preoccupied with moving the Rams to Los Angeles to intervene and seems to know a lot more about how to take dividends from Arsenal than how to replace a legendary manager who has been on the job for two decades.
The open, gorgeous play Arsenal built their reputation upon under Wenger still exists against lesser sides, or in glimpses against their equals or better. But there is a tangible lack of guile and flexibility to their tactics both on the pitch and with their transfer strategy.
Wenger prefers waiting for a perfect set of circumstances than be adaptable. Wenger is consistently too idealistic in his tactics and risk-adverse in his transfers. His methods aren’t unsound, but they’re boring and don’t lead Arsenal anywhere except top-4 safety and the FA Cup more recently. Wenger’s current run of demise is best illustrated by his zipper struggles. Wenger is laughably stalled.
The most un-Wenger moment of last season was when they won 2-0 at City with a strikingly different strategy built largely upon a revelatory performance from Francis Coquelin. The problem is Arsenal almost always plays the same way and it looks nothing like that, which doesn’t suit Coquelin’s strongest attributes and he also isn’t nearly of the box-to-box quality Wenger believes him to be. Coquelin’s emergence justified Wenger sitting out the market for a defensive midfielder and that became a clear mistake even for his defenders before fall officially started.
Arsenal completed prudent yet expensive purchases in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in consecutive summers; these were tentpole signings signaling a change in transfer strategies several years into the Emirates Stadium era. But these were proven top-50 players from the two biggest clubs in the world that were being moved simply because they became surplus parts. The transfer market is probably in a bubble at this point and even two years ago, but both purchases came at a discount.
Ozil is the best extension of Wenger on the field in this era of Arsenal; perhaps the most brilliant and imaginative passer in his prime on the planet, but he’s too often searching for the perfect pass instead of the useful, sensible pass. Ozil’s brilliance is being wasted on poor finishers ahead of him and poor link-up play behind him. Ozil has the quality for a team to be built around him but not the mentality. Ozil deserves to be placed behind the current front 3’s of Bayern or Barcelona.
The 4-1-4-1 formation is also another great microcosm for this era of Arsenal since it produces that fluid and occasionally beautiful football without any backbone.
Arsenal is always loved by expected goals with all of the chances they create, but those chances, like possession, can too often be innocuous for them. As useful as expected goals are, and Wenger is on record of finding them useful as well, there is more variance in the finishing ability from player to player than we can objectively determine. Adjusted for schedule, Arsenal currently has the best expected goals differential in the EPL by a comfortable margin.
This is all contrasted by their Sunday opponent, Manchester United, who sit at the top of the table almost by complete accident. You deserve credit for the accident if you let it happen.
United did two strange bits of business on the final day of the summer transfer window with their purchase of Anthony Martial and the still suspicious canceled sale of David De Gea to Real Madrid. Those two players, one of whom Louis van Gaal even thought he was buying for Ryan Giggs, will be the two most indispensible members of United’s core for the remainder of this decade.
De Gea allows United to comfortably play a high line, send balls half the length of the pitch with his precision passing and even allow Daley Blind to be a passable center back. The job of the back-four is infinitely easier with De Gea’s mobility and the quality of his touch as an outlet. De Gea was sold (or he wasn’t) to Real Madrid for £29.3 million and Keylor Navas, but he’ll be worth three times that in terms of added value to United.
The goalscoring of Martial will likely regress to a somewhat lower mean at some point, but the composure and balance he displays in his goals is rarely seen from the likes of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Giroud. Wenger admitted exactly what he thought of the Martial transfer; he would have never done it and he now has Martial’s agent on his list of trolls right beside Jose Mourinho.
Van Gaal’s tenure at United has been all about his flexibility. Van Gaal has tinkered with his formations on an ongoing basis while saving the Juan Mata transfer from the previous regime and cutting their losses on Angel di Maria. Van Gaal’s genius might just be that he’s completely making it up as he goes. There are moments of absurd incoherence, such as the first half of the Liverpool match this season, but it has fairly consistently found a way of working out.
Without question, United are the only English club in Europe playing with joy right now.
Wenger is just two years older than Van Gaal and both rose to power in the 1990s playing innovative possession-based football, but the curriculum viate of each couldn’t be more different over the past 20 years. Wenger was at Monaco for seven seasons and is in his 20th season at Arsenal. Van Gaal had his legendary run for six seasons at Ajax but he’s since had three seasons at Barcelona, two as manager of the Netherlands national team, one more season at Barcelona, four at AZ Alkmaar, two with Bayern and two more with the Oranje before coming to United.
Moving around that often has forced Van Gaal to become prudent and opportunistic in the way Ferguson was naturally despite staying at United forever. Phil Jackson’s key piece of advice to Steve Kerr last spring was the coaches who are most malleable have the best success in the playoffs. Ferguson, Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick are the standard-bearers for single club longevity in their respective sports and each has undergone a number of evolutions strategically.
Wenger has remained comfortable and unchallenged at Arsenal and the football world has passed him by. There’s a scenario in which Arsenal can win exactly as Wenger devised it in the early 2000s, but there’s no way he’d have would have the nerve to spend today’s TV-inflated equivalent of £11 million for a Thierry Henry with the vision to convert him from a winger to a striker. If he did have that in him, Wenger would have bought Martial.
Van Gaal is a former high school teacher and Wenger has always looked like one. As Wenger refuses to adapt and continues without consequence, he’s become a victim of securing his own tenured status and waiting for his vision of perfection to return.