Wenger's reputation on the line in acid test against Mourinho
Published 23/04/2015 | 02:30
It was a fire that Arsene Wenger would surely be well advised not to stoke but, perhaps buoyed by having just reached a seventh FA Cup final, he could not resist a small sprinkling of petrol.
Informed that Chelsea had just beaten Manchester United effectively to clinch the Premier League title, Wenger claimed not to know the result. When informed of the outcome, there was a flicker of a smile. "1-0? The usual," he said. The implication seemed obvious enough.
Jose Mourinho's teams are effective but predictable. A bit of a bore even.
Mourinho rarely allows any perceived slight to pass without forceful rebuttal and, ahead of the 13th meeting between two truly bitter rivals, we can imagine the sort of headlines that have already flashed up in his mind.
Wenger's problem, much like so many of his teams, is that he is wide open to the counter-attack. In 12 matches, Mourinho has never endured so much as one defeat against Arsenal, winning seven and drawing five.
The aggregate scoreline is 21-6 and the most memorable result was no drab 1-0 but rather the 6-0 demolition that Chelsea inflicted at Stamford Bridge last year on the occasion of Wenger's 1,000th Arsenal game.
Supporters of Wenger will inevitably argue that a narrow focus on the head-to-head record disguises wider truths. Such as how Mourinho has always had greater resources and how two great managers have so far collided at a time when Wenger has been building a club for a generation rather than just a team for the short term.
The inescapable bottom line, however, is that it is still an appalling record. So what has gone wrong? And will it ever change? The great intrigue is that this represents Wenger's best chance of finally beating Mourinho since their first meeting back exactly 10 seasons ago when Arsenal were the 'Invincible' defending Premier League champions.
Arsenal twice took the lead in that game before Chelsea scrapped to a 2-2 draw that was arguably the decisive moment in their first Premier League title win under Mourinho. The pendulum swung towards Chelsea that day and has remained there ever since.
Wenger, though, will sense that Sunday could potentially signal a similarly power shift. Arsenal are on a run of 24 wins in 29 matches and, while, Chelsea are hardly playing badly they are now leaning far more heavily on the more functional Mourinho methods compared to the wonderful flowing football from before Christmas.
The bookmakers actually make Arsenal favourites on Sunday but such odds overlook how Wenger's teams have previously been so tailor made for Mourinho's pragmatism. In an interview this year, Mourinho revealed just how carefully he always considers his opposition.
"My model of play is I have to find where is the weakness of my opponent and where is his strength," he said.
Wenger sees things very differently. His basic philosophy is to concentrate on Arsenal's strengths and he always sends his side out with the freedom to impose their style of play on the game. When, clearly, you have the better team, uncluttering the players' minds of added instruction often works.
Yet when the differences in quality are more marginal - or your players are actually inferior - Arsenal can be ruthlessly exposed. It is easy enough to identify the specific tactics that Mourinho has employed.
Press high up the pitch, restrict Arsenal space if not necessarily possession and strike with rapid counter-attacks whenever they lose the ball and their shape. The big caveat this time is that, for once, Arsenal just possibly do have the personnel to outplay Chelsea.
Martin Keown, the former Arsenal defender, certainly senses an added confidence following recent wins against Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United.
"I think Arsenal will look to take the game to Chelsea and Chelsea will maybe use an extra midfield player," says Keown. "Mourinho usually finds a tactic to stop the opposition from playing and Wenger tends to just go for it.
"There is much more belief among Arsenal this season and I think the Arsenal players can't wait to take on Chelsea."
The personal element on Sunday also can hardly be ignored. The extent to which Mourinho gets under Wenger's skin was laid bare at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season when he shoved the Chelsea manager during a heated touchline confrontation.
It is hard to imagine that Wenger would have behaved in the same way towards another Premier League counterpart. Mourinho's "voyeur" and "specialist in failure" remarks have never been forgotten.
For his part, Mourinho regards those things said and done in the heat of battle and has grown irritated by what he sees as the unusually favourable circumstances that Wenger enjoys. He never tires of pointing out that Arsenal did not win a trophy from 2005 until 2014 and his 'tribute' to Wenger on his 1,000th game was essentially a pat on the back to the Arsenal directors for putting up with him for so long.
Those same Arsenal directors, however, have always believed in a bigger picture. The move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium coupled with the financial backing provided by Roman Abramovich meant that, in the words of the former vice chairman David Dein, Chelsea had parked their "tanks on our lawn and fired £50 notes at us".
Wenger said he was fighting financially with "one hand tied behind my back". The great fascination now is that the landscape has again changed and, for Chelsea and Arsenal at least, the playing field is just about levelled out.
Chelsea's wage bill is now third in the Premier League and their fiscal plans for squad investment are almost identical to Arsenal. It is interesting, then, to reflect on a comment by Wenger in 2007 when he was asked about Mourinho's success. "If you would like to compare every manager you give each one the same amount of resources and say: 'You have that for five years," he said. "After five years you see who has done the most."
That opportunity has now arrived and, should Wenger's personal record against Mourinho not dramatically improve, there will be little mitigation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)