07 April 2014

Enough with the Ferguson/Moyes analogy already.

First off, I'm not quite ready to see Arsène leave. I've wavered and staggered, it's true, but I'm still clinging to the notion that he's the best man to lead us forward—not out of loyalty based on what he achieved in the first half of his tenure but out of a notion that he's up to something grander than we've anticipated yet. I've suggested in the past that this squad is overperforming, and maybe that's a fig-leaf to hide behind as the squad, running on fumes, struggles to cross the finish line. It's a squad a year away from legitimate contention. I worry, though, that falling out of the Champions League might derail whatever grand plan Arsène may have in mind, and he'll be drummed out or, quite simply, walk away. As we're peering nervously behind us to see who could knock us out of Champions League play next season, the inevitable comparison to Manchester United, post-Ferguson, springs to mind.

After all, it's hard to find a more-direct comparison on many levels. In terms of longevity and success, Ferguson is one of the only ones to best Arsène. There have been others who have served longer, and there have been others who have achieved more-frequent success, but Arsène and Alex have set a standard for success that few others will meet, much less surpass, any time soon.  For as much glee as some of us might take from their current struggles, and the ongoing petulance of the Dutch Skunk, there seems to lie a cautionary tale there as well: change managers at your peril. After all, Man U are on pace for their worst season in living memory, already guaranteed of their lowest points-total in Prem play (72, maximum) and what could be their lowest finish since 1990. Along the way, they've set all sorts of forgettable firsts at Old Trafford, letting all manner and number of clubs win there for the first time in years, if not decades. At the rate they're going, they're almost sure to miss out on European competitions entirely unless they pull off the improbable feat of winning this year's Champions League.

Take a minute to soak in the schadenfreude. It's okay. I'll wait.

Done? Good.

The cautionary tale is an easy one to summarize: club sees legendary manager retire. Club hires replacement. Club flounders towards mediocrity. This was with a hand-picked successor, mind you, which theoretically gave David Moyes and the rest of the club time to assess and address needs. The best they could do? The reluctant transfer of Marouane Fellaini. This to a squad that is so geriatric that it features seven regular players older than 31 and one who is now 40. That it performed as well as it did last season is some kind of medical miracle, but part of Man U's decrepitude derives from its, well, decrepitude. They won a championship last year, saw a manager retire, and just can't summon the same effort for the new guy. Whether it's age, complacency, or some combination thereof, they've become a thoroughly average squad (albeit one we couldn't beat in two tries...) capable of occasional spurts of quality but not enough to sustain a title-tilt.

The contrast between their squad and the one Arsène has built is stark. Yes, we're seeing the fading of players like Arteta, maybe Sagna and Rosický as well, but the core of this squad is brimming with a fertile mix of youth and experience. The upside is that it's been capable of long stretches of glorious, energetic play; the downside is that it's still susceptible to suffering from fragility and a lack of confidence. See a few players go down, suffer a few negative results, and that youthful energy ebbs. However, given just a bit more seasoning and the addition of a handful of players—two, maybe three—who can contribute but bed in well with the current lot, and better days lie ahead. A large part of this strikes me as Arsène's long-range plan. We're freed up from devoting so much to paying down the stadium-debt, we have a large transfer-kitty ready for the summer, and there is core of determined, spirited players ready to go to battle. We've seen that they are capable of beating some of the world's best clubs; why not remember that going forward?

I'm not ready to write off the current season, not by a long shot. With seven matches to play, reinforcements are arriving. Ramsey came back and put in a spirited if rusty cameo on Sunday, and we should see Gnabry, Koscielny, and Gibbs back by the weekend. We have a favorable run-in, and it's not brash of me to suggest we can still finish with a surge strong enough to seize fourth place again and win the FA Cup. I hope that this is enough to keep Arsène in charge for at least a few more seasons to see this master-plan come to fruition (even if it exists largely in my own mind). If, however, the unthinkable happens—we fall out of the Champions League, we don't win the FA Cup, or Arsène leaves—there is still a dynamic squad on the verge of being world-beaters. If it's not led by Arsène itself, whoever inherits the club, this year or a few years down the road, that manager will still owe a huge debt to Arsène for handing over to him one of the best young squads in the Prem, ready to go out and win. There's a legacy in that. It may not shine quite as bright as an actual trophy, but it won't be long before we have one or more of those as well.