'You tell me, who's good enough to replace Wenger?'

Sir Alex Ferguson jumps to defence of his old rival, who he says is the best in Arsenal's history
Click to follow

Bill Shankly once went seven years without silverware, Matt Busby and Bill Nicholson five and there was a time when Sir Alex Ferguson contemplated the kind of wilderness where Arsène Wenger now finds himself.

Not in terms of delivering cups, but the kind of trophy Manchester United had come to expect, the one that weighs four stone and is given to the winners of the Premier League.

Between 2004 and 2007 Ferguson saw himself elbowed aside, first by Arsenal's "Invincibles" and then by the ruthless side Jose Mourinho constructed at Chelsea. London, not Manchester or Liverpool, seemed to be English football's first city.

"The minute I won the league last season, I became concerned how we were going to win it again," he said. "It is the name of the game. You cannot stand still and I have never tried to do that here. The years between 2004 and 2007 when we lost the title I was always thinking how we could get it back."

Shankly would have revelled in the age of Sky Sports News and the ceaseless, repetitive radio phone-ins. Busby would probably have adapted with a measure of distaste. It would have horrified Nicholson, the martinet from Scarborough who revolutionised English football at Tottenham. None of them had to cope with the kind of carping and instant analysis Ferguson believes corrodes the game.

"The press play their part," he said. "But their job is to get a headline, so that is natural. It is the supporters who have to play a bigger part. The supporters of today have not got the patience of 30 years ago – nothing like it.

"Our country has become more tribal than ever through football. It has always been there but it is not as big as it is today. I am aware of that. Education does not come into it. They go into pubs and into work on a Monday and it surfaces all the time. There is a change in supporter participation; it is far more volatile than it ever was."

There may have been a time, half-a-dozen years ago, when Ferguson would have revelled in Wenger's discomfort. The Arsenal manager remarked, only half in jest, that they get on better because he is no longer a threat to Manchester United. In truth, it is because Ferguson always respects those football men who endure.

"I would like to know who is going to replace him?" he announced when asked if he thought Wenger was vulnerable. "The work he has done in the past 15 years has been the best in Arsenal's history. Yes, he has not won a trophy in six years, but what does that mean? The quality of his sides has not been reduced. The competition is far greater than when Arsenal and ourselves were going head to head for about eight years. It is a bit unfair, of course, but who understands fairness and unfairness today? It is quite a cynical world."

The loss of first Cesc Fabregas and then Samir Nasri has undermined Arsenal before they embark on a fixture that for a time seemed the nearest the Premier League possessed to Spain's Gran Clasico.

Ferguson argued that in Van Persie, Walcott, Rosicky and Chamakh, Wenger still had forwards who might do some damage at Old Trafford tomorrow, although having endured his own version of the Fabregas saga with Cristiano Ronaldo, he wondered if Wenger really had any choice in deciding the matter.

"When you face that inevitable situation where a player is not going to sign a contract, you can threaten to do what Arsène did with Nasri and keep him for another year and not get anything for him – or take the money. I think it is sensible to take the money. If he is not going to sign, why throw away money?

"We had the same situation with Cristiano. He had two years when we were under pressure to let him go but we had had him for six years and we had to answer the question of how long do you think you are going to have top European players? We like to think they will stay forever. Some have been very good that way but Cristiano always had this dream that he wanted to play for Real Madrid. You have to plan ahead. We did plan. We looked ahead and bought Nani.

"Fabregas wanted to go back to Barcelona. We had the same situation with Gerard Piqué. Eventually his parents wanted him to go home. We had four years with him. He was a fantastic player but we understood.

"You cannot become bitter about these things because this is the modern world. The important thing is to try and do your best for your club and make sure you prepare for these moments."