I am not unmindful of the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has been voted English Premier League's manager of the competition's one score years.
This is only fair based on sheer success, measured in titles across the competitions available for modern European clubs.
Manchester United and Liverpool are still the two most successful English clubs. A huge chunk of Manchester United’s success has happened under Ferguson. So there’s little argument against the fact that he could be considered EPL’s best manager.
If I know and acknowledge this, why then do I advance the thesis that Arsene Wenger is the best?
I give seven reasons. Four of these are equally true of Ferguson. The remaining three, I believe, are what give Wenger the edge.
The BBC noted during the 10th anniversary of Wenger’s managerial career at Arsenal that Jose Mourinho had spent more money, in just under two years, than Wenger had spent in his entire 10-year career at Arsenal.
Here are the exact words from BBC Sport in an article written in 2006.
His net average annual outlay is in the region of £4.5m and the estimated £160m he has spent is less than Jose Mourinho has splurged in his two-year spending spree across London at Chelsea.
Here is the immediate implication: If you want to determine who the better coach is between two candidates, do a calibration of their resources to find out who among them has accomplished more with moderate or inferior means.
For example, comparing season against season and means against means, there’s no doubt that as far as last season goes the incoming Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, was the more efficient and successful manager than the outgoing manager, Kenny Dalglish.
Again, means against means, although Roberto Mancini won the Premiership title last season, it has to be said that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United were the better team.
In different terms and posed as a question, would Manchester City have won the title had they not spent close to a billion pounds over two years on players?
Measured by the same standard, Wenger was even the most efficient of the three managers last season.
The following graph shows that Wenger and Arsenal were behind these two clubs in spending. Although both teams finished above Arsenal on the League table, Arsenal advanced further in the Champions League competition.
Data courtesy of footballspeak.com
Indeed, the fact that Arsenal finished in the top four at all is a testimony to the efficiency we’re talking about.
None of these two managers lost two of his best players at the eve of the season. If Ferguson and Manchester United endured severe injury problem, so did Wenger and Arsenal.
The entire defense of Arsenal was almost decimated by injury, a problem that threatened to derail the team's season.
When, therefore, people tout Mourinho as an amazing manager, the question whether this would be the case were he to operate within moderate means and with average players has to be posed.
By and large, Wenger has never enjoyed the same resources that Ferguson, or Mourinho at Chelsea, or Roberto Mancini of late have enjoyed, yet he has consistently finished on the top of the table.
To bring this home, midway last season, when Arsenal were feeling the full force of the injury problem alluded to above, a few fans posited the fallacy that Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle were now the more successful teams, just because at that time the two teams were in contention for top-four finish.
These fans even said that these two clubs were financially more prudent than Arsenal, a blatant lie, by the way, as the following table—which I produced then—shows.
Data courtesy of transferleague.co.uk.
The fact is, even some middling teams have outspent Arsenal and Wenger in the last decade and half, and yet Wenger has consistently outperformed them as a manager. This is a mark of a great manager.
To sum this up, we will know whether or not Pep Guardiola will be a great manager if in relative terms he reproduces his Barcelona success at a club with more moderate means in terms of quality players.
Great managers are not the collector-of-players type (think Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho), but the ones who are able to transform relatively moderate means into success.
Wenger—more than Ferguson or any of the top four managers—has consistently done this, and that makes him the best of the pack.
A number of the former players are excellent analysts and provide great insight to ongoing matches, but many are mediocre analysts.
Some outrightly scandalize in their attempt—“they need to just punt that ball into the 18, that’s what. Ireland are not intricate enough in their passing, why are they playing all those long balls? Barcelona need to learn to play long balls. Spain need a center forward…”
Nothing is wrong with this per se, except a great deal of it implies saying the opposite of an ongoing scenario when goals are a premium.
Here’s how this factors into the present discussion.
The reason why it is former players who are pundits is the same reason why it is former players who are managers. And just as only a few of them become excellent analysts and majority of them are mediocre and a few deplorable, so likewise only a few of them become excellent managers.
The rest attempt to regurgitate what they’d heard their managers say in their playing days. Or they mistake theory—4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2—for practice. (To be fair, this would be true of other types of analysts too were they to become managers.)
Many fail to realize that it is not formation per se that makes a team work. There is an extra ingredient that brings theory and formation to life. It is call vision or philosophy.
The best in the field are the idealistic type. The cream of the crop are unapologetic about their opinion regarding the manner the game should be played.
Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Viktor Maslov, Helenio Herrera, Louis van Gaal and now Pep Guardiola are football thinkers per excellence, visionaries, that is.
Arsene Wenger is one of them, as is Marcelo Bielsa.
Part of the reason why Wenger has been successful consistently is not unconnected to his being a visionary. But besides this, he knows how to bring his vision to life.
It is one thing to possess an idea; it is another to know how to execute it.
No one, though, can say of either Ferguson or of Mourinho that they don’t know how to execute their ideas. They do.
Money and the collection of players can only take you so far.
In fact, one of the distinctive qualities of Ferguson is his ability to build teams. But is there a distinctive style to Manchester United's football (or to the clubs under Mourinho or Mancini) that sets them apart from other teams?
Perhaps there is, but the fact that Arsenal have been known for their distinctive style of football, just like Barcelona and Spain have, is down to Wenger’s strong idea about how football is to be played.
This, to be sure, is informed by Rinus Michels’ philosophy, which also has informed Barcelona all these years. It is why the two clubs play a similar style of football.
The point here is that Wenger isn’t just a run-of-the-mill manager; he also possesses a vision and the know-how to execute it. This cannot be said of many managers, who simply mistake formations for the substance of the game.
Besides, a great many of them are merely reactionary managers, but we know, of course, that it is easier to tear down than to build. It is why, measure by measure, Pep Guardiola is superior to Jose Mourinho. (You are allowed to object.)
This point—being a visionary—is what makes Wenger one of the best in the field, certainly of the English Premier League if not the very best here.
The greatest strength of Alex Ferguson, as noted in the previous slide, is his ability to build winning teams.
This ability acquires greater focus when it manifests in the context of comparable lesser resources. It is the reason managers like David Moyes should be commended for their ability to be consistent though devoid of the resources managers of bigger clubs enjoy as a matter of routine.
It is for the same reason that I’m apt to sneer at Roberto Mancini, whose idea of team building is buying more and more players. I’d like to see him achieve consistency on a constrained budget.
Wenger has maintained top-four position consistently with resources that are less than what Ferguson at Manchester United and managers at Chelsea and Liverpool have enjoyed.
This is down to his ability to build teams over and over again despite constantly losing his top players either by force of circumstances or by the demand of finance.
Had he achieved all this with the same resources as his colleagues, I’d not single this factor out as anything special.
According to Arsene Wenger, the problem arose because Toure wanted to “to control his weight because that's where he has some problems and he took the product of his wife."
In essence, this was a vote of confidence in a player at a period of his darkness. This confirmed what players maintain about Wenger: his fierce loyalty, which affords a good environment for effective mentoring and nurturing.
Wenger, of course, is known for his nurturing of young players. It is a fact widely acknowledged.
Matt Scott of the Guardian wrote of how Wenger’s support and assurance gave Ashley Cole the confidence he needed to flourish at Arsenal. He is reported to have said to Cole:
“After Silvinho you can play left-back. You are one of the best left-backs at the club and one day will be one of the best in the world.”
It is said that this had an immediate and incredible effect on Ashley Cole. It helped him become one of the world’s best left-backs. Other examples are rife: Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Alex Song, etc.
But for this fierce loyalty, Arsenal would never have reaped the dividends of van Persie’s talent last season. The same loyalty and trust is at work in Abou Diaby; it could yet yield fruit for Arsenal.
In sum, when it comes to nurturing talents and sticking by players, Wenger is second to none.
Similarly, he breathes meaning into the word “manager,” the implication of which is lost on some “managers” like Mancini, who acquire and discard players with impunity.
In an interview with the coaches at Barcelona’s La Masia, one of them offered the following insight to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (See their Soccernomics, page 386):
“When we play Real Madrid youth teams, we are equal. Don’t think Real doesn’t have good youth players, [but] you have to have someone up there who says, ‘Go in.’
By this the person meant Barcelona's tradition of nurturing players and giving them the chance to play in the senior team as early as possible when their hard work and talent qualify them for it.
The reverse, he noted, is the case at Real Madrid, where the tradition of buying stars hampers their youngsters from breaking regularly into the senior team. There is, in other words, a severe dearth of “go in” at Real Madrid.
At Arsenal, the tradition nurtured by Wenger is to consistently utter “go in” to young players. It is a fine tradition, one which unfortunately the empty brains ridicule.
As to the fact that he held two degrees and spoke five languages, new rival Alex Ferguson summed it up quite nicely: “They say he's an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages. I've got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages!''
Anti-intellectualism in football was alive then (as it still is now) and kicking.
It manifests in different guises even today, in England, especially, as relative lack of tactical sophistication, where 4-4-2 is sufficient for all things. After all, it allows the direct and pragmatic kick-and-run kind of style still popular there in some quarters.
Ireland (England’s cousins) against Spain at 2012 Euros exposed the acerbic disadvantage inherent in this style and thinking, a thinking that often manifests in utterances by TV commentators, such as, “why aren’t they ‘hoofing’ the ball into the eighteen?” Well, Ireland, for example, hoofed and hoofed the ball away in an ostensible stupor; it didn’t work.
Back to diet: it was a progressive step that rejuvenated the aging squad that Wenger inherited from George Graham. They won the league the next season.
At a time where a number of teams favored the ultra defensive 3-5-2, Wenger changed the formation of the team (known then as boring Arsenal) to an attacking 4-4-2, which in reality was a 4-2-3-1 of a kind, where the second digit represented the two central midfielders, the third, the two inward-tending wingers (outside midfielders) and the supporting striker cum creative midfielder, and the final digit, the most advanced striker.
Arsenal quickly became known for their dynamic and incessant attacking football, and when in 2003-04 they went an entire season unbeaten, it was said that England had seen one of the greatest sides ever. This wasn’t a team that won by measly single goals and by parking the bus, no. They won by outplaying and outscoring their opponents.
Followers of Wenger and the team would notice a gradual tactical transformation now in play. That’s forward thinking.
In fact, Pep Guardiola may have, perhaps, usurped Wenger as the most admired manager in town, but until recently, Wenger had been the most sought-after manager by aspiring coaches, many of whom came to Arsenal to observe Wenger’s training sessions.
Progressive thinking also meant that it was Wenger who introduced England to true cosmopolitanism in a squad.
When the English press complained about the dearth of English players in an English team, Wenger replied that football is a game of merit, opened to the best talents around the world. Today, almost every team is cosmopolitan.
At a time when even the forward thinking David Dein wanted Arsenal to rent Old Wembley Stadium, Wenger supported the idea of building for the future, hence the Emirates stadium. He adjusted his approach to team building accordingly, favoring nurture over the purchase of stars.
It is—the stadium, that is—what has given Arsenal the edge over Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It has made Arsenal one of the richest clubs in the world.
A big stadium had given Manchester United an edge over her rivals. It was expedient therefore that Arsenal should leave Highbury to a bigger ground if the club would favorably contend for the future.
Furthermore, it was Wenger who first used computer stats in the Premier League to both analyze games, player performances and to aid him in transfer purchases.
Now stats have become a Holy Grail of sorts. Every Tom, Dick and Harry holds stats sacrosanct, as though they were the trump card for success. They are not, of course.
In essence, it is progressive thinking that has made Wenger focus on youth development rather than on spending huge amounts of cash on ready-made stars. This will yet yield dividend. And as the reader would have observed, other English teams are now following suit.
It has also meant that Wenger has had limited funds to buy new players to plug up the holes that constantly have resulted from the loss of key players.
His solution has been to blood young players, prematurely so at times. Then the cycle would repeat itself when these new players are seen to be world-class and the vultures come out en masse to scavenge a game they’ve neither hunted nor killed.
This has hampered Wenger from repeating the success of his first decade at Arsenal, a time when he was firmly on course to knocking off Manchester United from its perch as the golden club of recent times.
As it happened, Chelsea are the one that have knocked off Arsenal from their own patch as the new boys in town.
And now with the arrival of the nouveau riche, those noisy neighbors from the city of Manchester, it doesn’t look likely that Arsenal are going to regain their vaunted perch any time soon. But that Wenger has been highly successful at Arsenal is without doubt.
Arsenal still are the third most successful club in the history of English football, behind Liverpool and Manchester United, and a great deal of this success has happened in the last decade and half under Wenger.
If, as it is hoped, more resources become available to Wenger for transfers, it requires little imagination to suppose that the perch can yet be reclaimed.
Please refer to this article to review Wenger’s successes at Arsenal.
It took France a decade of planning to win the 1998 edition of the World Cup. This planning also yielded a European Championship, and also resulted in another World Cup final about a decade later. France is still reaping the fruit of that planning.
FC Barcelona’s recent successes are a fruit of 30 years of nurturing a particular principle, a principle imported from the Netherlands through Johan Cruyff.
Wenger’s principle of development and financial prudence is informed by the philosophy that building a particular way of playing football from the academy upward is bound eventually to yield fruit.
The reader must have noticed that the kind of football Spain now plays is informed by Barcelona. That’s what principle and planning can do.
Wenger’s determination to see through his conviction and philosophy in the face of severe criticism is one of the factors that make him one of the world’s best. The short-sighted fans who bay for his blood as a matter of routine may not see it; It, however, doesn’t matter.
Good things take time to mature. The culture of instant gratification says otherwise, but life is a better teacher; it is the more dependable witness.