It would have been the footballing headline of the century. Sure, the century was only two years old at the time, but it would have stood as the story that shocked English football. As hypothetical scenarios go, the prospect of Arsene Wenger succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager back in 2002 as about as compelling as they come.
This consideration comes after Wenger admitted that at one point it was a possibility, with then Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards approaching the Arsenal manager. Ferguson had announced his intention to retire 11 years before he actually did. The Old Trafford club had started the search for his replacement and Wenger, Ferguson’s biggest rival and adversary, was the guy they wanted.
Of course, it’s impossible to truly gauge how Wenger would have done as United manager. He was seen in a very different light to the way he is now. He was still a giant of the game, revolutionising English football in the years since his arrival at Arsenal in 1996. His greatest team, The Invincibles, had still to come to fruition. Wenger was at the peak of his powers.
“Because I love the values of this club and, for me, a club is about values first,” Wenger replied when asked why he remained at Highbury. “One day it would be a good chat to have with the press to look at the evolution. You speak about Manchester United, and the evolution in the last 20 years would be very interesting. A lot has changed but when I came here this club was about values that I love in sport. That is why I am still in the competition. So I always question myself. Yes, of course, Manchester United is attractive but am I happy here? The answer was yes.”
Some might be tempted to suggest that Wenger would have been able to preserve his personal legacy much better at Old Trafford than he has been able to at Arsenal. As United boss, he would have had more money to spend in the transfer market, he wouldn’t have been handcuffed by financial reality like he has at the Emirates Stadium in recent years. He wouldn’t have been the one selling Robin Van Persie, he would have been the one signing him.
Nothing could have possibly changed the course of Wenger’s career, though. His decline is one that takes into account tactics and stubbornness. It’s about much more than just signings. Take this season, for instance. Arsenal, in Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kalasinac, signed two players who should have solved significant problem areas, yet the culture of comfortability is what continues to drag the club down.
There’s no reason to believe Wenger wouldn’t have instilled a similar culture at Man Utd. What’s more, he wouldn’t have had the basis of good faith that has seen him last so long, seen him granted so much leeway, at Arsenal. At Old Trafford, Wenger wouldn’t have enjoyed the same level of tolerance. He would have cut adrift much sooner, in the way both David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal were in the post-Ferguson age.
In a strange way, that might have actually spared Wenger the embarrassment of the past decade or so. After the initial bluster of his departure to a direct rival, it might even have preserved his Arsenal legacy. He would have been remembered as the man who built the club in its modern day image, rather than the man who built it and then trashed it.
It’s not Arsenal that has dragged down Wenger, though. He only has himself to blame for the way the past 10 years have gone, and joining Manchester United 15 years ago wouldn’t have halted his slide into his current situation.