Arsene Wenger has a pulled a monkey off his back.
It’s the first win the Frenchman has managed over Jose Mourinho in 11 years of trying. It’s a shame for the Arsenal manager that it wasn’t a more serious game. But who cares, right? How good does it feel to scratch an itch? And how good must it feel to scratch one that’s resided tantalisingly out of your grasp for 11 long and humiliating years?
A cursory look at the two teams who lined up on Sunday at Wembley would show two strong sides – hardly a pre-season friendly lineup for either team. Yet as good as the feeling of victory tastes, it’s a fool who celebrates the lifting of the Community Shield with too much gusto.
Arsenal played well and beat a Chelsea side managed by a man Wenger hadn’t beaten before that game. That’s all we can take from it, but that’s enough for now – the rest of the season will allow us to take more. And Wenger, at least for the time being, can take some pleasure at getting the monkey off his back.
But the question for Wenger now is what to do with the monkey. It’s no longer on his back, but it’s still capable of causing yet more trouble for poor old Arsene.
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Jose Mourinho came to the Premier League with the same tools that Wenger possessed upon arrival on these shores. Neither had burned up the professional football scene in their respective youths, but both came to the job with tactical nous and guile. And both used those tools to build dynasties at two of London’s most fashionable clubs. Self-made men, the pair of them. On that score, at least, you’d think they’d be friends.
But the old enemies are part of distinct footballing philosophies: Wenger serenely hums along to the rhythm of his team ticking along with a technical brilliance, Mourinho spends his time shaping and moulding a winning team. One is an idealist, the other a pragmatist.
To that end, Mourinho’s post-match jibe at Wenger is easy to understand. If Wenger’s team were more solid than usual against a Chelsea team who found themselves chasing the game, then Wenger is – at least in Mourinho’s eyes – an unwelcome trespasser into pragmatist country.
Wars are rarely won after winning one battle. Especially not when you’ve managed a solitary victory in 14 attempts. Mourinho’s monkey is much more stubborn than that.
This victory is a watershed moment for Wenger, but Mourinho is showing us that he won’t go down without a fight. The pragmatist can shape and mould some more, and his creation will certainly give Wenger’s team a run for its money later on in the season when the two meet again. But this is Wenger showing us he can play the pragmatist game.
Why are we so surprised? After all, Wenger showed a pragmatic edge last season too. They hit Manchester City on the counter attack so very very well at the Etihad Stadium in January.
But this shows an altogether more mature performance from Wenger’s Gunners. For one thing, Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini are ripe for hitting on the counter, whereas Chelsea are more of a green banana. A more counter-receptive team than City is hard to find until you go back to the ultra-passing, ultra-tiki-taka, ‘Pep-Max’ Bayern Munich side that capitulated so dutifully against the counter attacking pizzazz of Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final of 2014. (Perhaps they lost their fizz on that occasion….)
But more importantly, Wenger’s Arsenal didn’t just counter Chelsea. They pressed them right from the off. That’s what was so interesting. Arsenal didn’t simply go out to hit Chelsea on the counter, they went out there to do exactly what Chelsea did all of last season: grab a lead and hold onto it. It was a performance that heralded Arsenal’s place as title contenders, a performance that staked Wenger’s claim for the title. Arsenal looked like a team who could actually do it. But Arsenal will need to continue to do it over the next 10 months.
The monkey is off Wenger’s back, but just as Arsenal showed on Sunday, when you attack you need to be wary of the counter-attack. Wenger won the battle, but Mourinho knows there’s a long war ahead. Wenger’s monkey is no longer behind him, it’s standing squarely in front of him and staring him down.
An itch has been scratched for the first time in 11 years, but it’s now more than 11 years since Wenger last lifted the Premier League trophy. The monkey may be off Wenger’s back, but it torments him still.