How Arsenal learned from Manchester United's mistakes in post-Ferguson era
David Gill had informed Alex Ferguson that he intended to step down as Manchester United chief executive before the manager communicated his decision to retire in the summer of 2013, but the simultaneous loss of the club’s two figureheads was a grave error of judgment by the club.
United seemed too concerned about keeping Ferguson’s retirement under wraps than conducting a strategic review of the ramifications of his exit. Ed Woodward spent some time shadowing Gill, but the jump from running United’s commercial arm to steering the ship was too much, too soon, and was compounded by the absence of football expertise around him and stay-away owners.
Arsenal’s planning for the post-Arsene Wenger era began well before Wenger had left the club, with no vacuum created as United did when Gill departed.
The behind-the-scenes structure was overhauled by the appointments of head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and contract negotiator Huss Fahmy last year.
This provided Arsenal with a platform from which to make major decisions without the previously all-encompassing manager, and it is significant that Unai Emery was appointed as head coach, rather than as Wenger’s replacement as manager.
The exit of chief executive Ivan Gazidis prompted an unexpected reshuffle this year, but continuity was ensured by the promotion of Sanllehi to head of football, alongside managing director Vinai Venkatesham.
Picking the right man
United shied away from a rigorous interview process and, while they maintain several leading candidates were unavailable, including Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp, it is debatable how hard they pushed for any of them.
Was Ferguson allowed to exert too much influence in the appointment of David Moyes?
Either way, it was an odd choice, not least as his playing style hardly chimed with United’s attacking traditions. He had not won anything in 11 years at Everton and he lacked the personality and decisiveness that was a prerequisite in such a big job.
The key men behind the search for Arsenal’s new coach were Sanllehi, Mislintat and Gazidis, and the club decided against including Wenger in the decision.
Sanllehi has said he did not think involving Wenger was the “appropriate way of doing it”.
Arsenal’s executives originally came up with a list of 50 names, which was whittled down to a “very short list” of candidates for interview.
Sanllehi says the decision to appoint the Spaniard was the unanimous choice of all involved in the process. Fahmy was also included in the talks, as was analytics expert Jaeson Rosenfeld.
United blundered by allowing Moyes to call the shots in the transfer market and it is a mistake they have repeated under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho.
They had a deal lined up for Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcantara, but Moyes vetoed it and then spent months trying to convince the board he could sign Everton pair Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini on the cheap.
Woodward’s inexperience came to the fore in the failed pursuit of Cesc Fabregas and the bungled attempts to sign Ander Herrera for less than his release clause only days before the window closed.
A major part of Emery’s appeal to Arsenal’s senior figures was that he was glowing in his praise for the players who were already at the club.
Emery did not demand a major overhaul of the playing staff, instead arguing that he could get more out of the existing players.
Those who have arrived, though, have all had an obvious impact. Matteo Guendouzi has adapted far quicker than expected, while Bernd Leno, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and in particular Lucas Torreira have notably improved the first team already.
Their success is credit to the work of Mislintat, the recruitment guru, as well as Emery.
Changing the culture
Moyes’ failure to keep on assistant manager Mike Phelan, who had shielded Ferguson from much of the bureaucracy, deprived him of an invaluable buffer and reference point.
Moyes never exerted an air of authority, struggled to handle the big personalities and struck a negative, defensive or defeatist tone in the media.
Equally, United had become Ferguson’s fiefdom and areas of the club were in urgent need of modernisation. In some ways they were stuck in a time warp – complaints shared subsequently by Van Gaal and Mourinho.
Much was made in the first few weeks of Emery’s reign of his decision to ban fruit juice from the training ground and install an outdoor gym next to the training pitch.
Far more significant, though, has been his relentless attention to detail and focus on tactics. He has reignited the spark in a team who had gone stale.
This was particularly evident in Sunday’s north London derby, when the touchline scuffle was a sign of Arsenal’s renewed bite.
It was also no coincidence that two of the players most involved in that melee were Guendouzi and Stephan Lichtsteiner, two of the new arrivals.
Making an impact
Moyes’s hopes of making an immediate impression were undermined early on by failings in the transfer market.
Despite their status as champions, United badly needed an injection of fresh blood and Moyes, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by his six-year contract, underestimated the importance of a strong start and the level of scrutiny that comes with being United manager.
A tough early fixture list did not help, but the football was ponderous and leaden and offered little for the fans to rally behind, and he never managed to turn that poor start around.
Emery is unafraid to make big decisions. One of his first actions, remember, was to tell Jack Wilshere he was not good enough, and to allow the fan favourite to walk away from the club.
He has been bold in his team selections, too. This is not just in dropping Mesut Ozil, almost unthinkable during Wenger’s reign, but also in his game management.
No other manager is changing matches with his tactics or substitutions like Emery is right now.
He has plenty of credit in the bank and the Wenger era already feels a long time ago, with Arsenal enjoying a much smoother and more invigorating transition than United did in 2013.
They will be hoping to show that tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)