Arsene Wenger: Now is the time to finally beat Jose Mourinho
The Arsenal manager feels his team are back on a level playing field as he looks for that first win against the Portuguese boss when Chelsea visit The Emirates
Sunday 22 December 2013
It was the one moment on Friday when Arsène Wenger's face turned serious, when he wasn't preaching the same positivity from last weekend's 6-3 defeat to Manchester City.
The Arsenal manager was inevitably asked about his relationship with Jose Mourinho, and some of the insults the Portuguese inflicted during his first stint at Chelsea between 2004 and 2007.
"I do not want to speak too much about that," Wenger dignifiedly responded. "What is important on the day of the game is the players, and that the managers sit back."
The problem with letting events on the pitch speak for themselves is that they didn't make the best reading for Arsenal during that period either. Mourinho is one of very few managers to enjoy a superior record against the Arsenal boss. In fact, he has never lost to Wenger. Over nine meetings, Mourinho has drawn four and won five, with the most recent victory coming in October's Capital One Cup tie.
If that 2-0 Chelsea win was skewed by weakened teams, however, Wenger feels their previous meetings were similarly swung by external issues. Most notably, expenditure.
"Let's not forget that when we won the championship in 2004, Chelsea finished second and we had an unbeaten season. At the time, [Claudio] Ranieri was manager. Mourinho came in and they bought [Didier] Drogba, [Ricardo] Carvalho and they were even stronger.
"I think it is more of a level playing field. We had restricted financial resources for years [after the construction of the Emirates Stadium]. Everybody knows that. It's simple."
That does seem a rather simplistic reading of the record. Around the same period, Alex Ferguson started to develop an edge over Arsenal too, and he is the only other high-profile Premier League manager to enjoy a better head-to-head against Wenger. Ferguson won nine of their last 12 duels, revealing why in his recent autobiography.
"In later years, we learned more about Arsène's thinking," Ferguson explained. "Arsène had a template of how he sees his players and the way they play. We didn't need to win the ball against Arsenal, we needed to intercept it... then we counter-attacked quickly."
In other words, Wenger will never radically alter his possession-based attacking game, and places an awful lot of trust in his players to out-football any opposition. That faith is a cornerstone of his philosophy. Ferguson did add that Wenger teams tend to be more conservative away from home, but it's not like he will ever do anything truly left-field to make sure of victory. Mourinho almost always will.
The Chelsea manager seems more prepared to try something different if his team are below their best. Wenger is more of a slave to how slickly or sluggishly his side are playing, something the Arsenal manager effectively acknowledged on Friday. "I always built my teams in the style I want to play," he said.
This was arguably confirmed by the Manchester City match. Despite Manuel Pellegrini's team possessing such a magnificent scoring record and looking the best attack in the League, Wenger decided to go toe-to-toe with them. In that context, the ludicrous 6-3 outcome was somewhat inevitable.
That very result lends an even more interesting context to tomorrow's match at the Emirates. For one, there's the manner it further congested the top of the table. Secondly, the fact it's still so difficult to tell which team are best equipped to stay at the top by the end of the season.
Chelsea remain so close to the summit despite never convincing for a full 90 minutes, but that poses the question of whether it is Mourinho instilling his resolve until a new side clicks, or the manager's durability merely delaying an incomplete squad slipping away. This will further reveal their true standard.
Arsenal have been in more consistent form and have enjoyed their finest football since that 2003-04 team, but a run of three difficult fixtures without a win has raised doubts over whether that is something of an illusion. This is the perfect game to prove otherwise.
Because, thirdly, it's difficult to determine who has the upper hand right now. Arsenal need to arrest this run, but while they have enjoyed a welcome nine-day break, Chelsea endured another negative with League Cup elimination to Sunderland.
It is an inconsistency you would not normally associate with Mourinho. The Portuguese may need to offer a little more than pragmatism tomorrow; Wenger insists his players are "focused to respond".
Either way, it feels like this giddy title race is starting to get serious.
Mourinho – Wenger's nemesis
The Chelsea manager remains undefeated in nine meetings between the two, since their first encounter when Arsenal were defending champions.
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 2 Premier League, December 12, 2004
Chelsea 0 Arsenal 0 Premier League, April 20, 2005
Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2 Community Shield, August 7, 2005
Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0 Premier League, August 21, 2005
Arsenal 0 Chelsea 2 Premier League, December 18, 2005
Chelsea 1 Arsenal 1 Premier League, December 10, 2006
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1 League Cup final, February 25, 2007
Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1 Premier League, May 6, 2007
Arsenal 0 Chelsea 2 League Cup, October 29, 2013
Arsenal v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, ko 8pm
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