Speaking with the independence of a man who knows he can choose from two jobs, Guus Hiddink last night suggested Roman Abramovich should look to today's FA Cup semi-final opponents if he wanted his Chelsea project to succeed. The Arsenal model, however, precludes the type of lavish expenditure the Chelsea owner is rumoured to be planning once again, as well as his propensity for discarding managers.
While Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996, Abramovich is seeking his fifth manager in just six years of control. "Wenger has been at Arsenal for 12 years," said Hiddink. The Russia and Chelsea manager added: "It shows the work there has been very serious for a long period. It shows that the club has had his philosophy and strategy about how to play and how to act, with their education of young players and transfer policy. It is a good model to follow, as is Manchester United.
"In recent years there have been rather a lot of changes in management at our own club. People inside this club know it has been too much of a change in recent times. To have stability you must go for a longer period. Then you can make your aims on the very short-term – daily or weekly – but you can also plan in advance what you can win in two or three years. Things have happened here that weren't always in favour of stability."
The praise went on. "They try to sign players who are attractive to watch, a bit like Barcelona."
The usual stellar shopping list is being ascribed to Abramovich and if the latest names are speculative, not to say improbable (as if Arsenal would sell Emmanuel Adebayor to Chelsea), the Russian does appear to have a star-struck transfer philosophy which is rarely shared by a serious manager and would be certainly anathema to Wenger. Yesterday, the Arsenal manager rejected criticism of his buying, the latest broadside coming from former player Emmanuel Petit.
"It's part of the job of managers to manage within the resources of the club and try to be successful," Wenger said. "Earlier in the season, one of the biggest reproaches I got was: 'Why do you not spend £30m, £40m, £50m?' That's unbelievable. They basically reproach me for not bankrupting the club. Instead of getting credit because you try to live in a reasonable way you get accused for not making the whole thing explode."
He denied the criticism hurt. "That is normal when I do a public job. I prefer it when people say I am good rather than I am rubbish. But I am long enough in the job to understand you cannot as well ask for people to say when you lose the games that you are absolutely fantastic. I knew that the future for the club will be very, very good. Why? Because we do not need to rely on anybody. We have a good young team. If you take this team and look how much investment it cost you will be surprised compared to the other teams who play at our level.
"You have many clubs here in England now who are in difficult situations financially. Of course I don't speak about Chelsea because they are a special case." They are also, said Wenger, an exception in that they have managed to remain a force in Europe despite the management instability.
"Other countries are trying to analyse why the English Premier League clubs are so successful," said Wenger. "They came to the conclusion it is not only the money. As well, it is the face they have of the manager. Chelsea is a little bit of an exception, but only recently. [Jose] Mourinho stayed three years and [Claudio] Ranieri stayed five."
He went on, contentiously, to add: "Ranieri has been the foundation of the team. Mourinho deserves credit but maybe Ranieri didn't get enough. He built this team, nobody else."
Hmmm. While Ranieri signed or brought through Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard, as many key players in the Chelsea team Arsenal will face at Wembley are Mourinho's men, notably Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Didier Drogba. The latter could have been an Arsenal player, said Wenger. "When he was in Le Mans [1998-2002] we watched him carefully but felt he might not be completely ready. His value was £100,000. All the French clubs watched him. Nobody took him. He went to Guingamp. It was a mistake but one people in football can understand. And we had Thierry Henry."
Hiddink confirmed he would be cutting his formal ties with Chelsea completely at the end of the season, returning only to watch games in his role as manager of Russia. His last day in the job could thus be 30 May, the FA Cup final. "I can lift the cup for half a minute, that would be beautiful," he said. For Wenger, however, that would merely be the latest stage on his quest to make Arsenal peerless, and to do so on a balanced budget.
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