The Weekend Dossier: Lee Dixon
Fergie knows you must mix innocence with arrogance – so why doesn't Wenger?
Saturday 27 August 2011
It is nothing new, but somehow the ability of Sir Alex Ferguson to redesign his team still comes as a surprise. You look at the Manchester United side that brushed aside Tottenham on Monday and it's as if it had evolved overnight.
That's how it seems from the outside. First came the Da Silva twins, then he signed Chris Smalling, then Phil Jones arrived. In the meantime back come Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley from loan spells – both having picked up a season's worth of experience in the Premier League – they go too and suddenly there's an exciting new team. Of course there is nothing sudden about it and for the coaching set-up at Old Trafford it's the result of careful, long-term planning.
It is what Ferguson has always done so well, the manner in which he integrates young players seamlessly. Every couple of years or so United seem to blossom into a new team. Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have gone, and Ryan Giggs looks like he will be sitting on the bench for much of this campaign, but United already look like the team to beat.
There are similarities between Ferguson and Arsène Wenger in how both like to refresh their sides with young players, and are happy to give those youngsters a go. The difference, and it is a big one, is that Ferguson always keeps that core of experience and that provides the youngsters with a constant reference point. Arsenal have tried to be too youth orientated so the transition is not as smooth – as results have shown.
There is an expectation when you play for Arsenal – as there is at United, Chelsea and other clubs of that status – and the fact that there hasn't been a trophy for six years shows that perhaps the players have not been able to handle it, to knuckle down and get that result when under real pressure. You need to have a certain character of player in the team to do that and Arsenal have lacked that sort of mental strength.
The win in midweek against Udinese was encouraging, but the pressure is still there. In the past you would have been confident – and I say this as a former Arsenal man rather than a detached pundit – that they would play "for the Cannon". We always used to say that we were The Arsenal – that capital T meant something. It looks like it did in Italy and they will need more of the same at Old Trafford tomorrow afternoon. But, and there always seems to be a but with Arsenal at the moment, I am not convinced they have enough of that spirit. Is there enough character in the team? That is an area where somebody like Gary Cahill may have a role to play.
You can't overestimate the power of the dressing room, before, during and after the game. Look around the Manchester United dressing room and there are people like Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand. There are dressing rooms you come out of half a goal up already. Is that bordering on arrogance? No, it is an arrogance. I have been there and know how it feels – I'm not in the Arsenal dressing room now but I don't see it clearly on the pitch with this side. You sit in the dressing room, look round and think I can count on him, him, him and on the list goes. It is what Ferguson has got so right over the years – having that as a constant while also managing to filter in ready-made replacements. He can freshen up his sides without losing any of that arrogance and authority that belongs to United teams whenever they run out on to the pitch.
There is something else that Ferguson, and United, are good at; keeping a link with the club's past, a sense of continuity. Bobby Charlton is there, Bryan Robson is there as an ambassador, while Paul Scholes is also still around. There is less of that at Arsenal – and this is certainly not me pitching for a job! – with only Steve Bould looking after the reserve team. That continuity within a club matters – it applies to any business really, you don't want to see all that talent and experience walk out the door. Manchester City didn't hesitate to give Patrick Vieira a role off the field when he retired.
You look at United's squad now – and David Gill has said there will be no more additions in this transfer window – and over the season they definitely still appear the team the others will have to catch. There you are admiring Welbeck against Spurs and on comes Javier Hernandez, fresh and flying after a nice long rest, as Dimitar Berbatov sits and watches from the sidelines without having to take his tracksuit off.
Arsenal's bench couldn't compete with Liverpool's last weekend let alone United. I am one of Wenger's biggest fans and the Champions League win does give him a bit of leeway that he deserves, but Arsène must strengthen the squad. His side showed their spirit on Wednesday and he has some extraordinarily talented players, but this is a massive few days for him and his club.
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