The Nick Townsend column: Wenger must be wondering: what would Fergie do?

Arsenal's general has to face up to a lack of leadership on the pitch and bring in some big guns as reinforcements

Sunday 20 April 2008 00:00
Sir Alex Ferguson's sympathy for Arsène Wenger last Sunday reflected the fact that he wentthree years without a championship but he knows when to buy big and when to wield the axe
Sir Alex Ferguson's sympathy for Arsène Wenger last Sunday reflected the fact that he wentthree years without a championship but he knows when to buy big and when to wield the axe

Yes, we know he was being magnanimous in victory, the old softy, even though it appeared out of character for the Manchester United manager, whose demeanour is generally as impenetrable as a granite work-surface. But if there is one thing worse than watchingyour team make the champions-elect look just a little bit ordinary for much of a contest, and still finding yourself finally ousted from title contention, it's a consoling arm from the Scot.

Come on, admit it. Arsène Wenger reminded you of a big grumpy kid told he can't go out to play at the final whistle at Old Trafford. He looked like he was about to blubber, "It's not fair". And yet which one of us would really want to be the one to say "Get over it, Arsène", because though he will, in time, you have to remember this is his life's work. And after another season spent distilling talent, the Frenchman has yet again failed to identify the chemistry needed to turn rare resources into champions.

Even when five points clear in February, it appeared as though Arsenal had exceeded their capacity. It brings to mind the words: "Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising". But Wenger will move on, and with Arsenal, one should stress (though the day will surelycome when France come calling and he responds positively), and he will do so in the knowledge that he is well-nigh irreplaceable.

Though this mid-20th centuryFrench piece, with all its idiosyncratic features, may have accumulated its chips and flaws, it is not something any club would readily discard. Let us not forget, since Wenger arrived here in September 1996 his teams have amassed three titles, four FA Cups and have been Champions' League runners-up. While that may not bear comparison with Ferguson's six championships (soon to be seven), two FA Cups and one Champions' League triumph during the same period,it is a record that should be celebrated, particularly given that Wenger's expenditure has been significantly less than any of his main rivals in recent years.

There are also worse things than having even the followers of rivals confirm that your manager is the architect of the country's most attractive football. And yet... though the process of getting there can be a pleasure in itself, it cannot be all about fantastic foreplay. There does need to be a climax once in a while. It is a competitive league, not a style show, and all managers are judged on results.

Though Wenger will continue to curse his team's ill-fortune, with dark hints of conspiracy, and no doubt his chagrin will intensify as he watches this week's Champions' League semi-finals take place without the presence of his men, maybe, just maybe, he will be asking himself what his great adversary would have done.

You couldn't ask for two finer creators than Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb (sadly, his name is too close to that of Rosa Klebb, she of the killer shoes in From Russia With Love, for him ever to be regarded as being as sexy as Cristiano Ronaldo, though for sheer poise, vision, technique and, yes, watchability, he compares with the Portuguese). Yet decidedly lacking in the Arsenalside are authoritative figures who exude leadership.

It is three seasons since the Gunners claimed a trophy, the FA Cup. Their last title was four years ago. Significantly, while they then boasted Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and an emerging Fabregas, just as crucial was the presence of Patrick Vieira and Sol Campbell. After that zenith, and the era of The Invincibles, question marks appeared over Henry's captaincy. Even more surround that of William Gallas. When in February the going got tough at St Andrew's, the tough turned wimpish. At this rarefied level of performance it was a definingmoment.

Ferguson understands Wenger's torment. He went three seasons without a championship too. But the Manchester United manager, though he has always relished nurturing young talent, as Wenger does to an almost obsessional extent, understands the importance of installing heavyweight figures – notably Ferdinand, Rooney, Tevez, Vidic, Evra. And Ronaldo, of course – and having the courage to cull when he thinks it is appropriate.

The Scot is also aware of the vagaries of football. He may moan and bitch with the best of them, but he understands that justice is not always handed down equitably. He must do, having been present on 26 May 1999 at the Nou Camp, when his team, deprived of the suspendedPaul Scholes and Roy Keane, and with "the most prolific scoring partnership in the Premier League [Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole] subdued on the night", as Ferguson himself conceded, looked destined to be frustrated.

Substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer concealed United's inadequacies against Bayern Munich, just as last Sunday a soft penalty and Owen Hargreaves' clever free-kick punished an often superior Arsenal. Though miserly in their surrender of goals, a defensive vulnerability does exist, particularly in the absence of Nemanja Vidic. Wes Brown can be a liability. Even Rio Ferdinand can be accident-prone. At the scene of United's 1999 Champions' League victory on Wednesday, Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona must carry far more conviction going forward than others have this season to exploit that fallibility.

Comparisons of teams who are separated by nearly a decade tend to be invidious but, for all the potency of Cole and Yorke, there can be no question which team possess the more varied and lethal attacking attributes. Yet there is considerably more to the current United than Ron-aldo, Rooney and Tevez. Blessed with such characters as Hargreaves and Ferdinand, Ferguson's men carry a conviction, a mental fortitude, that Arsenal have exhibited only occasionally (such as in Milan and Bolton). It should be sufficient to carry United into a belated second appearance under Ferguson in the final. Wenger can only watch and ponder what might have been.

Promotion back into big time is Shot in arm for game

At the other end of the football spectrum, the kind of achievement that offers all non-League clubs hope.

Tuesday's draw at Exeter City was sufficient. The Shots were back in the big time, at least for them, of the Football League. I speak with particular affection as I was there, back in 1992, when Aldershot FC ceased to be. Their demise appeared as final as that of Monty Python's parrot. I attended the last rites, travelling on the team bus with the players, management and, appropriately enough, the club chaplain, to what was to prove their final away game, at Doncaster. It was a day of gallows humour. On the way up, we stopped at a hotel for a team meeting, or as the players called it, "a pre-mortem". As we headed back down the M1 after a 1-0 defeat, the then player-manager, Ian McDonald, quipped: "Next week's sponsors – the hand of God." But even a higher authority could not save the Shots.

After five years of turbulence, the club had reportedly failed to pay their rent at the Recreation Ground for three months and were £1 million in debt. Itwas mid-February, and theplayers had not been paid since 13 December.

Sixteen years on, we have witnessed the reincarnation of the club, albeit under a slightly different guise, that of Aldershot Town FC. They ascended from the Isthmian League Third Division through to the Conference in 2003 and will now join League Two, under the management since last summer of the former Republic of Ireland player Gary Waddock. Aldershot's restoration of their League status is a remarkable story. But does it not serve to make the manner of the creation of Milton Keynes Dons (isn't it time they dropped the "Dons?") even more unpalatable?

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