London – It probably won’t surprise anybody who has followed the life and times of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to know that when he was rich enough to afford the house of his dreams in Malmo – a mansion, painted pink, “as big as a castle” – it didn’t particularly bother him that somebody was already living there. Ibrahimovic, as you may have gathered, is not short of self-confidence and turned up one day with his partner, Helena, to knock on the door and introduce himself. “We’re here because you’re living in our house,” was one way to break the ice.
It did the trick, though. The neighbours could be a problem – “It’s all posh people,” he once complained, “there’s nobody who speaks like me, who says stuff like ‘the wickedest house’ and that” – but they bought the place a few months later and on the first day Ibrahimovic hung a framed portrait of two dirty feet inside the main entrance. Friends would visit and ask why he would hang such an unsightly picture in such a beautiful house. “You idiots,” he would reply. “Those feet have paid for all of this.”
Ibrahimovic, you quickly learn, likes to do things his own way. Yes, he has an ego the size of a small planet but at least he backs it up with hard evidence and, watching the 17th hat-trick of his career the other night, the thought did occur that if those feet continue to do the business beyond his 36th birthday, accompanied by the inevitable influx of summer signings, next season might be the first since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that Manchester United genuinely trouble the teams at the top of the table.
Old Trafford feels like a happier place already. Ibrahimovic, with 22 goals, has been fundamental to it; José Mourinho even more so. They have not been beaten in the Premier League since the penultimate week of October and are powering on in three knockout competitions, including the EFL Cup final next weekend against Southampton. Slowly but surely, it does feel like Mourinho is getting it right and that, finally, the good times might be on their way back.
And yet, here’s the thing: Manchester United are sixth in the league. Mourinho has taken the team on their most productive run of form since Ferguson was in charge and they have been locked in sixth, bar one day, since 6 November, still playing catch-up and trying to shake their heads clear coming up to four years since the sledgehammer effect of discovering the most successful manager in the business could no longer go by the description, first coined by the Daily Telegraph, as The Man Who Couldn’t Retire.
There certainly hasn’t been a great deal of fun at Old Trafford since Ferguson, with his 13th league title in the bag, passed the baton into David Moyes’s buttery grip and, however traumatic the last week may have been for Arsenal, the people making the most noise about Arsène Wenger should pay close attention if they want to get a better idea of the potential risks of losing a manager who has been in position for two decades and, specifically, the mess that can be created once the break is made.
Wenger’s more ardent critics have dismissed the careful-what-you-wish-for argument on the basis it can hardly be any worse than a team that finish in the top four of the Premier League, but never the top one, and have flatlined in the first knockout round of the Champions League for seven consecutive seasons.
Yet it can actually be a whole deal worse. Of course it can. United provide hard proof and it has taken an enormous amount of money to put it right, bearing in mind Paul Pogba alone will have cost in the region of £150m, taking in his transfer fee and salary, over the next five years. The kind of money, in other words, United are willing to spend, but not Arsenal.
Unfortunately for Wenger, it has clearly reached the point where there is so much noise and pent‑up frustration surrounding Arsenal that many supporters are willing to take the risk. Which is fine, as long as the same people realise that changing the manager does not guarantee upward momentum. It might actually get worse and it is worth remembering, this being far from the only time there has been a stampede to usher Wenger off the premises, that the last time Ferguson was asked about it he was of the view that Arsenal should dread the day it happens. “Arsène has taken a lot of flak, but who’s going to replace him?” he said. “Who’s going to make it better? It’s a very difficult position for anyone who comes in after Arsène and has to change the philosophy he introduced, and kept, for all those years.”
The difference is United won the league in Ferguson’s final season but it is difficult to follow the logic that that should make it easier for whoever goes next at Arsenal. If the idea is for Wenger’s successor to produce a title-winning side, surely it is better to inherit a team of serial champions rather than one that has finished, on average, 14 points adrift since 2004 and is capable of the kind of white-flag capitulation witnessed against Bayern Munich last Wednesday – particularly if the suspicion is correct that Alexis Sánchez’s exit music is growing louder with every flounce.
Ferguson’s handover showed how the transition is rarely smooth. United have been suffering ever since and for more than three-quarters of that time the irony is they have been looking up at the team managed by Wenger. Indeed, there is only one of the last four seasons, 2014-15, when United have spent any time whatsoever above Arsenal since the turn of the year – and never from March onwards. In total, Arsenal will have spent 77.7% of the post-Ferguson years – 803 days against 230 – looking down on United, rather than the other way around, by the time they next play in the league. Or 424‑52 in what Ferguson used to call the business part of the season, from New Year’s Day onwards. Those figures could easily be turned on their head if Wenger goes and it turns out Arsenal, like United, were even more dependent on one man than people realised.
That doesn’t change the fact Arsenal’s second-half performance against Bayern Munich was thoroughly lamentable, or that there are legitimate questions about what Wenger has done with all that precious magic. He will have to cut himself free at some point and it is never pleasant sitting in the press box at the Emirates Stadium, 30 yards or so over his shoulder, and seeing, close up, the vitriol he receives when his team are suffering.
At the same time, is it any wonder if the club’s owner, Stan Kroenke, and all their other key decision-makers have misgivings about finding a new manager when they remember that excruciating eight-month period when Moyes, the man Ferguson had handpicked for the United job, seemed to age five years with every defeat?
Do they recall how Louis van Gaal said he would put it right, promising everything would click within three months, only to oversee a stultifying two-year stretch where, barring last season’s FA Cup, the phrase “football, bloody hell” took on an entirely different meaning to how Ferguson meant it in 1999?
Are they familiar with the smaller details such as Moyes deciding Marouane Fellaini was a more appropriate wearer of United’s colours than Thiago Alcântara, the brilliant Spaniard who accounted for two of the goals against Wenger’s men in the Allianz Arena? Or that Van Gaal’s more impenetrable tactics, such as the ban on Wayne Rooney being allowed to shoot first-time from crosses, left the players pining for the old United way?
If United are on their way back, the people at the top of the club can hardly be too pleased with themselves when it has taken an absolute fortune to build a team that is so heavily reliant on a player of 35 and Mourinho, always the outstanding candidate for the job, was made to wait three managers down the line for his opportunity.
Ferguson had done 26 years and, in his own words, a change of that magnitude “would have affected the running of any operation, in any business”. Arsenal, with no apparent succession plan, will not be immune. Nobody can be sure they would be more successful without Wenger, or that in a few years’ time the people campaigning for his departure might actually miss what he has brought them in every single one of his 20 seasons – as one supporter put it on the radio the other day, the “mediocrity of a top-four finish”.
The Guardian Sport