Be careful what you wish for. That was the message going out to Arsenal fans as they voiced their displeasure towards Arsene Wenger during the legendary manager’s final years at the club.
The reason for that message was the decline of Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. David Moyes, then Louis van Gaal, failed to live up to the United icon’s level of success, and now Jose Mourinho is struggling to do so, too.
Be careful what you wish for, Arsenal. This could happen to you, too.
The two sides meet on Wednesday, the first time in the Premier League era that this storied rivalry will feature neither Ferguson nor Wenger on the touchline.
Arsenal are in the first of their post-Wenger seasons and United now in the sixth of the post-Ferguson era, and though Arsenal fans were the ones told to be careful what they wished for, at the moment, there must be plenty of United fans wishing their team were more like the Gunners.
Unai Emery’s side are fourth, unbeaten in 19, having just won a pulsating north London derby. They play thrilling, attacking football, and that has translated into results.
United are seventh, closer to the relegation zone than to the Premier League leaders in terms of points, and have a negative goal difference. That comes after five years which have seen them finish seventh, fifth, sixth and a distant second – 19 points behind winners Man City – their best finish since Ferguson left. And they do more attacking in their comments to the press than on the pitch.
Two weeks ago Jose Mourinho was talking about the top four.— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) December 4, 2018
Now it's the top six 👀 pic.twitter.com/K6NVC6bwdL
There’s no doubt which club is in better shape right now. And it’s all the more obvious given the two teams are realistically competing for the same prize, a top-four finish. United are eight points behind Arsenal at the moment, and the gap looks bigger than that.
Be careful what you wish for? On the contrary, Arsenal fans are loving it at the moment.
There are caveats. When Ferguson left, United were champions, and some sort of drop-off from there in the wake of his departure was inevitable. Arsenal, on the other hand, had their drop-off happen while Wenger remained manager, as he first presided over ten straight trophyless and then the first two finishes outside the top four in his 22-year reign.
When the team finished fifth and sixth in consecutive seasons, the entire point of making a change was to ensure the only way was up. In effect, the downturn that United are experiencing now, Arsenal experienced without changing their manager.
And though both Wenger and Ferguson left it pretty late in their last seasons to announce their decisions to leave – Wenger in April last season, Ferguson even later, in May 2013 – there was a sense that Arsenal were far more prepared for the eventuality.
They didn’t have a situation where the outgoing manager was hand-picking his successor, as Ferguson did with Moyes – a state of affairs that looks just as poor as the Scot’s choice itself. Imagine any top club now letting one man choose the manager, especially a man on his way out of the club.
Instead, Arsenal looked at multiple available candidates, then settled on Emery as their preferred choice. So far, that decision’s looking good.
Both clubs have made their mistakes – Arsenal in letting Wenger choose how long he could carry on, United in letting Ferguson choose his replacement – but as things stand, the north London club has rebounded better.
Be careful what you wish for? Right now, United are wishing they were like Arsenal.
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