Arsenal have a long history with the greatest coach of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his latest works gives us a front row seat into his mind.
Any time you get the chance to delve into arguably the greatest footballing mind of all time, you take it. Sir Alex Ferguson has published three books since his Manchester United departure. His first two focused more on the facts and the happenings of his time in the greatest sport in the world.
However, his most recent work, “Leading” focuses more on his mindset and his tactics through it all. As the title suggests, it can even serve as an all-encompassing manual for how to lead. Given his experience in the subject, there are few better brains to pick in that regard.
Reading the book from a strictly Arsenal mindset, the similarities between Sir Alex Ferguson’s philosophy and Arsene Wenger’s philosophy are incredibly clear. In fact, it is safe to say that as it stands in the present day, Ferguson has more in common with Arsenal than he does with Manchester United. But that was not always the case.
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Ferguson himself almost ended up at Arsenal, but instead spent his life as the foil to Wenger’s success. With two minds that were so similar, it only made sense that they were going to be direct rivals.
The clashes between Sir Alex Ferguson’s philosophy and those of his former club are rampant from the start. Right off the bat he explains that a club’s focus should be on developing young players (pg 4). He was of the belief that when you raise a player within the system of one team, than they know no other world and that was the case with so many United players.
He states that you had better understand the player that you are buying before you buy them (pg 14). Immediately we think of Louis Van Gaal’s one-year purchase of Angel Di Maria, who he clearly did not understand. After spending £60m to land the prolific Argentine’s services, Van Gaal misused the man and sold him for £45m the following summer.
We also have to wonder if the same is happening with Anthony Martial. The deal to bring the Frenchman to United could cost up to £60m and yet Van Gaal still doesn’t know if he is a striker or a winger.
Sir Alex Ferguson knew every player frontward, backward and sideways before he signed them. That too, is the aim of Wenger, although the transfer market is different these days.
Back to Sir Alex Ferguson’s similarities, on page 62, he gives us the most telling line of them all: “You cannot buy success.” The smiles create themselves as that is precisely what Fergie’s old club is doing and what Arsenal have been refusing to do.
On page 97 he makes the distinct point that you should never introduce a series of new players all at one time. As he put it, it is like teaching each person a new language while familiarizing them with the local dialect.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s mindset is so clearly what made United great and their deviation is undoing all that he set up. His focus on the importance of a player pipeline is a recurring them. On page 78 he indicates that a player will never forget the team that gave him his first shot. It all comes back to the original plot, that a team gets better the longer they play together.
The two managers also had a particular affinity for players with superb work ethics. Ferguson admitted that he would rather have a player with a stronger work ethic and less natural-born ability than someone with the opposite. He even pointed to long-time Arsenal captain Tony Adams and referred to him as a Untied player in the wrong shirt. He was not the only player that Sir Alex Ferguson coveted from Arsenal. Aaron Ramsey was another, as Ryan Giggs fought to pull his countryman to United but somehow, unbeknownst to Fergie, Wenger beat him to it. What does Ramsey have? A superb work ethic.
The similarities continued when Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out that one of the hardest things to do as a manager is to “stay the course” (page 122). Even when things looked like they were going wrong, he had to keep doing what he was doing and believe in his philosophy. After all, if he couldn’t believe in his own philosophy, how could he expect the players to? Is that not what Arsene Wenger is doing? He has stayed the course through the debt at the Emirates and now we have finally emerged on the other side.
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Still another similarity is the way in which Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger handled the press. Both would vehemently defend their players to the press. No matter the situation, they always came out on the players side. It was just another crucial piece in holding the players’ trust.
All of these themes indicate a shared mindset with Arsene Wenger. But it’s not like the two were mental doppelgangers. For starters, Ferguson was of the firm belief that captain’s win games (pg 102). Arsenal have not had a true game-changing captain in years. From Vermaelen to Arteta to Mertesacker, no one would consider them game changers. Perhaps that is why they have struggled with key games for the past few years as well.
Ferguson and Wenger also have a different idea of what world class is. Fergie claims that he only ever coached four world class players and Wayne Rooney was not one of them. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger can be heard referring to Arsenal as being in possession of three world class goal keepers. And that was before he signed Petr Cech.
However, these small differences have very little business interfering in how similar these two brilliant football minds were. Sir Alex Ferguson’s similarities may even offer us a hint as to who Arsenal’s next manager may be. Ferguson made it clear that Ryan Giggs was to be the next manager of the club. It held true to his philosophy that letting players assume the coaching mantle was a continuation of greatness.
By that standard, and given how much the two managers have in common, is it fairly safe to assume that Wenger thinks the same thing, and that Thierry Henry will be the next Arsenal manager? Only time will tell.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s “Leading” is a fantastic look into one of, if not the, most brilliant minds to ever be associated with the game. His philosophies can be seen in the pages and on the pitch and they should never be forgotten.
However, his take on the game is also proof that football is changing. Let Arsene Wenger serve as the representative of that claim. Wenger is living and breathing 95% of the philosophy of the most successful manager to have ever lived and he is struggling and meeting with the outcry of fans begging for big name signings. It is a changing of the times and it is up to Arsene Wenger to carry on the philosophies that he and Sir Alex Ferguson embodied and prove that their shared philosophies can still breed greatness.