Manchester United and Arsenal’s Premier League clash this Sunday will write the closing chapters in two glorious rivalries that have defined Arsene Wenger’s career.
The intensity of the feud may not be as great as it once was, but the Red Devils were the Frenchman’s instantaneous enemy upon being appointed Arsenal boss in 1996, the club he needed to topple to make his tenure a punctually successful one.
That rivalry reached its peak in 2002, when Arsenal secured the Premier League title at Old Trafford by beating the reigning champions. Two years later, the Gunners did something Sir Alex Ferguson’s United never could – the Invincibles once again beating them to the English crown, but this time undefeated.
That achievement though, wouldn’t have been possible without United playing their part; their illustrious dominance of English football helped drive Wenger to become such a transformative figure in the Premier League, someone who changed almost every aspect of the game as it was understood, from diet and fitness to the utilisation of cheap foreign talent and an idealistic emphasis on attacking football.
As Gary Neville quipped following news that Wenger will step down, the manner in which he rebuilt Arsenal from an unspectacular yet effective team into English football’s most entertaining side forced United to change the way they played against them.
In fact, it ultimately obliged Ferguson to adopt new practices, to embrace more foreign talent and to reconsider his own tactical principles as well. One of the Scot’s greatest strengths was always recognising changing trends and bringing them to the Old Trafford camp.
“The biggest compliment I can give him is that he played a level and brand of football that made us change the way we played, which you don’t say about too many teams.
“We’d have to go more defensive, and change our style, and across a 20-year period they were just wonderful football teams that played in a great style.”
But if that rivalry represents something of a gentleman’s dispute that Wenger arguably conquered, at least for a significant period, the second glorious one of his career was far more foul tempered, and proved the be the turning point that resulted in the moment we’ve now reached – where Arsenal’s decline has been so severe that Wenger’s tenure has come to a somewhat unceromonious end.
Wenger’s rivalry with United certainly suffered its dark moments – Martin Keown infamously hounding Ruud van Nistelrooy after missing a penalty, Le Professeur and Ferguson partaking in snarky press conference exchanges and of course, Pizza-gate. But his rivalry with Jose Mourinho has been a different category altogether, the Portuguese publicly branding his nemesis a ‘voyeur’ during his first spell at Chelsea and a ‘specialist in failure’ during his second.
The crudeness of those remarks etched them in history, and in one way or another they’ve loomed over Wenger ever since.
In terms of results too, Mourinho’s self-declared coronation as the Special One signalled the end of Arsenal’s impeccable peak. Mourinho’s Chelsea side instantly took away the Invincibles’ invincibility, beating them to the next Premier League title, and the west Londoners’ first crowning in 2005 instigated a nine-year wait for a trophy in north London. Mourinho, for all intents and purposes, had evicted Arsenal from the Garden of Eden and banished them to a barren wasteland.
And that dramatic shift was no coincidence either – coupled with how the personal element of the feud with Mourinho clearly had an effect on Wenger, tactically the Portuguese had changed the game too. Indeed, just as United’s dominance had helped shape Wenger, Arsenal’s Invincibles campaign helped shape Mourinho.
He won the Premier League title with a greater emphasis on defensive solidity than any previous champion, conceding a mere 15 goals that remains a record unto this day, and the use of Claude Makelele behind the midfield in a new 4-3-3 formation directly counteracted the possession-based fluidity that had made Arsenal so imperious the previous campaign.
The dynamics of the Premier League drastically changed; whereas the Invincibles had previously established themselves as the template to follow, Chelsea offered an alternative path and soon enough, 4-3-3 was adopted by practically every club in the Premier League. Wenger wasn’t only being outfought and out-thought by Mourinho personally, but also the countless managers who sought to replicate his tactics – especially against the Gunners.
Wenger’s attempts to innovate only really made the problem worse. As the Premier League became quicker, more powerful and more athletic than ever before, Wenger’s focus turned towards the kind of technical talents being produced at Barcelona. Perhaps that was a bid to overcome teams like Chelsea with pure quality, but it actually took away one of the two aspects that once made Arsenal so great – their unrivalled attacking flair, combined with a dogged and savvy physical core.
Even today, the Gunners still lack that physicality, and it’s probably what Arsenal fans expect their next manager to bring back to the team as soon as he officially takes the reins from Wenger.
But management is often a generational thing; one great innovator comes along and topples the old guard, before becoming the old guard himself and having the same done to him. Wenger’s ultimate failing is that he couldn’t quite keep up.
His vision was either too far removed from the realities of the Premier League at that time – only now is Pep Guardiola producing the kind of football he tried to achieve in the late 2000s – or not executed with the same meticulous degree as the Invincibles. Consequently, we reach a point where Wenger’s time with Arsenal is being drawn to a close.
In turn though, that serves as a warning to Mourinho, who himself has become part of the Premier League’s old guard. In fact, he’ll be the oldest manager in the Big Six when Wenger officially leaves – albeit depending on who replaces him – and Mourinho’s pragmatic style of football is being cast as old-fashioned with increasing recurrence.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s lightening-quick attacking football just makes you feel like you’re looking into the future of the Premier League, a future that could soon enough leave Mourinho behind. Compared to his heyday of the mid-to-late 2000s, the consistency and calibre of trophy wins is already on the decline.
The truth is that we don’t quite know if this will be Wenger’s last meeting with United or Mourinho, for the next stage of his career – if there is one – remains unclear. But for ninety minutes on Sunday the future will feel largely irrelevant anyway. Manchester United and Arsenal’s Premier League clash is recognition of what has been, the many battles won and lost, and what these glorious rivalries have given to the Premier League.
They’ve been at loggerheads for their whole careers, once even shoving each other on the touchline, but there will be an inevitable obligation of respect when Wenger faces the club that helped build him and the man who begun to pick him apart this weekend.