Tomorrow afternoon’s early Premier League kick off will represent Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game at the Arsenal helm – a sensational achievement in the hire-and-fire, slapstick and sensationalist world the English management racket now finds itself in.
Some of the beautiful game’s leading dignitaries, ranging from Sir Alex Ferguson to Thierry Henry, have already paid homage to the Frenchman and his 18-year reign in North London ahead of the landmark fixture. Expect similar schmoozing from Jake Humphrey et al. in the BT Sports studio tomorrow morning.
But in truth, Wenger’s millennium outing as Gunners gaffer couldn’t have come against a worse opponent. Of all the Premier League candidates capable of spoiling the party, there are none more qualified or motivated to do so than a Chelsea side working under the Frenchman’s last remaining ancient rival, Jose Mourinho.
There’s certainly no love lost between the two. In fact, philosophically and historically, they are polar opposites. Arsenal is the most purist institution the Premier League has ever seen, Mourinho’s anti-football on the other hand has created a monolithic powerhouse of mechanical football at Chelsea.
Likewise, the Portuguese’s Premier League arrival, ‘special one’ comments and all, coincided with the Gunners last English crowning in 2004. Prior to the Special One turning up in West London, Wenger had just enjoyed an undefeated campaign with his famous Invincibles cast. Since then, the Blues have gone on to win three Premier League titles, two consecutively under Mourinho, whilst Arsenal have remained dormant in the title race until their reawakening this season.
In many senses, Mourinho and Wenger are like Yin and Yang. One championing the importance of quality and creativity on the ball, the other proving that tactics, organisation and defensive consistency can be an equally as effective entity. One famed for his politeness and respect, the other regarded as an arrogant wind-up merchant that views no trick or rhetorical verse too dirty or foul to be off limits. One representing a club on a billionaire-funded rise, the other a club attempting to preserve its standing amid pressing financial burdens.
But unlike the Chinese interpretation of the continual battle between good and evil, light and dark or life and death, Mourinho and Wenger do not meet at cosmic equilibrium. The Emirates boss wouldn’t like to admit it, but in terms of tactics, results and those all important mind-game duels, the Special One has the Frenchman trapped under his special thumb.
Previous meetings between the two suggest as much; in the ten fixtures Wenger and Mourinho have gone head-to-head in the space of nearly a decade, the Chelsea manager boasts a record of five wins, five draws and no defeats.
Back in December, prior to their last meeting in the Premier League, Mourinho downplayed the notion that his record against Wenger is a barometer of their individual credentials, but with the Portuguese’s mischievous streak well known, it’s safe to assume that this is exactly what he was getting at.
As ferocious as the performances on the pitch over the last decade have been Mourinho’s and Wenger’s in the press conferences.
The Arsenal boss, despite his cool, composed and respected image, has taken numerous swipes at his Chelsea rival over the years, most notably attacking Mourinho’s famed defensively-assured and mechanical style of play back in 2005, stating that “once a sport encourages teams who refuse to take the initiative, the sport is in danger”. The Blues won the Premier League title that season, and despite Mourinho’s anti-football policy, finished the campaign with a record 95 points – five points more than Wenger’s free-flowing Invincibles.
Later that year, the Frenchman also commented in regards to the Chelsea gaffer; “When you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent.”
Compared to Wenger’s usual demeanour, these outbursts can be considered to be of the outraged variety. But even so, they fall some way short of Mourinho’s mud-slinging attempts to unsettle his Arsenal counterpart.
In 2005, after revealing the club had complied an 120 page dossier on quotes Wenger had directly made regarding the Blues since the Portuguese’s arrival, he compared Le Prof to a perverse voyeur for his stalker-like obsession with the West London club – arguably the most disrespectful and personally insulting press conference jibe in Premier League history.
Despite the comment’s widespread condemnation, the image of Wenger as some sort of sexual deviant still exists in Premier League terraces to this day.
The Chelsea gaffer’s most recent swipe came incredibly close to topping that – after Arsene Wenger claimed Mourinho’s refusal to back Chelsea’s title credentials this season was sourced from a ‘fear of failure’, the Portuguese quickly demonstrated he was in no mood for subtle to-and-fros with his rival by branding the Arsenal boss a “specialist in failure,” citing that well-documented eight-year trophy drought.
Even ahead of a fixture that will undoubtedly be one of the greatest achievements in Wenger’s managerial career, the Portuguese has refused to use kid gloves, quipping earlier today; “I admire Wenger and I admire Arsenal, a club that stands by their manager in bad moments – of which there were quite a lot.”
On paper, these quotes suggest that Mourinho is the one feeling the pinch. His petulant, play-ground antics suggest the old adage of one protesting too much out of insecurity.
But in reality, the reverse is true. In a climate where Wenger’s 18-year management spell is second-bested by Newcastle’s three-year servant in Alan Pardew, the Frenchman’s peers only have the utmost respect for him, regardless of Arsenal’s worryingly bare trophy cabinet. That’s all of Le Prof’s peers…except for Mourinho.
The Chelsea gaffer’s swipes arrogantly play off Chelsea and Arsenal’s contrasting fortunes since that fateful summer of 2004, where the good times in North London abruptly came to an end. Every result, press conference innuendo and public slanging match since can be traced back to how Mourinho’s arrival has left a permanent mark on the Premier League’s summit.
Wenger will be hoping that the current campaign can bring redemption – the opportunity to silence Mourinho’s disrespectful gob for at least the duration of the summer – should his Arsenal side clinch the Premier League title come May-time.
But for that ambition to be fulfilled, Wenger must escape his rival’s psychological grip tomorrow afternoon and fight the awesome tide of history – the Chelsea boss is still yet to lose a league fixture at Stamford Bridge, quite amazingly. With Mourinho banned from the touchline after being sent to the stands against Aston Villa last weekend, this could be the Arsenal manager’s greatest chance to do so for the best part of a decade.