21 years ago, Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal a relative unknown, but took little time to implement his revolutionary approach on a team that had been something of a sleeping giant. Two years later, that relative unknown had won the Premier League and heralded a genius who changed the landscape of not just Arsenal Football Club, but of the Premier League.
What ensued was a fiery and, at times, ferocious rivalry with Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. The latter departed, but Jose Mourinho arrived and, after two spells with Chelsea, has now taken Ferguson’s place to lead United in their attempt to get back to the top of English football.
Wenger has still never beaten Mourinho, but there has been no talk of the 13-year rivalry that the pair have shared this time around. This season, Arsenal vs Manchester United feels like just another game, the fifth-place play-off, as the table currently suggests.
Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger's rivalry in quotes
Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger's rivalry in quotes
1/11 Arsène Wenger, February 2005
After being probed about the number of foreign players in his Arsenal side, Wenger flipped the question onto Chelsea's lack of homegrown talent.
2/11 Jose Mourinho, October 2005
Mourinho did not initially bite back, but after Wenger criticised his team further, he infamously labelled the Frenchman a 'voyeur'.
3/11 Arsène Wenger, November 2005
Wenger did not react well and accused Mourinho of being "disconnected with reality and disrespectful".
4/11 Jose Mourinho, April 2008
Their rivalry calmed after Mourinho's exit from Chelsea in 2007, but the Portuguese could not help but prod Wenger again during his time at Internazionale.
5/11 Arsène Wenger, April 2013
After Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso appeared to purposely earn yellow cards in a Champions League tie for Mourinho's Real Madrid side, Wenger admonised their actions in the press.
6/11 Jose Mourinho, April 2013
Wenger's comments provoked a spiky reaction from Mourinho, who attacked his rival's reputation as a manager who develops young talent.
7/11 Arsène Wenger, January 2014
Mourinho, back at Chelsea, sold Juan Mata to Manchester United shortly after the two sides had played their final league fixture against each other for the season.
8/11 Jose Mourinho, January 2014
Wenger's reaction did not surprise Mourinho, who cried foul himself with a complaint about Arsenal's fixture list.
9/11 Jose Mourinho, February 2014
After Wenger suggested his rival may suffer from a 'fear of failure', Mourinho infamously retorted by calling Wenger a 'specialist in failure'.
10/11 Arsène Wenger, October 2014
The pair finally came to physical blows on the touchline during Chelsea's 2-0 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in October 2014.
11/11 Jose Mourinho, October 2015
A year later, with his title-winning side falling apart at the seams, Mourinho claimed that Wenger was the only manager in the league who could criticise referees and get away with it.
Arsenal’s fall down the Premier League will not impact on Wenger’s future, it seems, with the chances of him signing a new contract in the next month more probable than possible. The same cannot be said of Mesut Ozil though, with the World Cup winner under-fire, under scrutiny and, he believes, underpaid.
Ozil is holding out for wages close to the £300,000-a-week mark, a deal that would make him the highest-paid player in the Premier League and also one of the most richly-rewarded in the world. His form this season has displayed nothing to deserve that tag, with the 28-year-old coming under intense criticism from not just Arsenal fans but also former players, like Martin Keown, and his anonymous performance in last weekend’s north London derby defeat by Tottenham felt like the tipping point for fans who would no longer mind if their £42.5m club-record signing was sold this summer.
But Wenger has urged Ozil’s critics not to make their judgement based on last weekend’s loss, and insisted that despite his seeming uninterested and care-free approach, he puts in just as much effort as his livelier teammates, and won’t be asked to change his style any time soon.
“I believe last Sunday to just criticise Mesut Ozil's performance does not reflect exactly what happened on the pitch,” defended Wenger. “Overall I believe recently he has put a lot of effort in. He was a bit, like the rest of the team, not physically at his best.
“Overall the big players get more criticised than the others. Secondly his style is more fluid, less aggressive but it doesn't mean you want it less than others.”
In contrast to Ozil, Alexis Sanchez is a brimming ball of excitement, frustration and rage, with the Chile international snapping at the heels of opponents and very much the source of attacking threat that a rather toothless Arsenal side can muster - toothless, at least, compared to how Wenger’s past sides have lined up.
But while the French manager enjoys seeing players of Sanchez’s desire, he also accepts that having someone with Ozil’s laid-back approach can also have its benefits.
“I like them [players who are up and at them] as well but at the end of the day his [Ozil’s] style is his style and what you measure with Mesut Ozil is the efficiency,” he explained. “His basic quality is retention and the creation of goal chances.
“At the end of the day you want all your players to be at their best in every single game so when they don't achieve that of course you are frustrated but we all played football. We know we are only human beings and you have to accept the ups and downs.”
The anger from the Emirates shown towards Ozil and, in recent weeks, to Sanchez stems from the fact that the pair are out of contract next year and only 13 months from leaving the club on a free transfer. That Arsenal have let themselves get into a situation where they faced with the option of selling two of their best players, bowing to their excessive – and undeserved – wage demands or allowing £100m worth of talent walk out the door for nothing is close to criminal for a club that prides itself on its financial nous.
But there is a reason why Wenger and the Arsenal board have not allowed themselves to be held to ransom by the pair. They are not the only players out of contract next year, and while their performances have been questioned during Arsenal’s drop to sixth in the Premier League table those of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – another who enters the final year of his contract next season – has flourished under the recently implemented 3-4-2-1 formation.
“You know me for a long time, before we spend big money we analyse all the aspects of commitments because we have not only Mesut Ozil and Sanchez to extend,” Wenger explained. “We have many other players to extend and you have to make sure you have the resources available to extend the other players that you think are needed to be successful in the future. For example Oxlade-Chamberlain is part of that.”
The problem with all of this is that it has reduced what was one of the great games of the fixture list to nothing more than an end-of-season encounter, where the winner will celebrate it no more than beating a relegation candidate and the loser will think ‘oh well, there’s always next season’. With the United manager Jose Mourinho willing to rest players against his biggest rival, and against the club that he has such a stranglehold over, is partly due to his desire to win the Europa League and partly representative of the status of this game. Suddenly, it seems as though Mesut Ozil’s style was made for this fixture.Reuse content