Chelsea v Arsenal: Arsène Wenger - the manager for all seasons dreams of perfection as oldest foe Jose Mourinho awaits
Arsenal manager says friendship with Chelsea boss is impossible
At 999 games into his Arsenal era, Arsène Wenger tried to define the essence of the competitive life of the Premier League manager as he prepared to face his old nemesis, Jose Mourinho.
Nowadays, Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson shower each other with plaudits but was it ever feasible to be friends with these rivals during a working life? “It is impossible,” Wenger snapped back. “You cannot be friends. You can be friends at the start of competition. The real sport on that front is rugby. But they don’t kiss each other before the game when they walk in the tunnel. They go out and are ready for war. They become friends after the game.”
Of all the adversaries whom Wenger has acquired over the years it is the manager who faces him at lunchtime on Saturday, on the occasion of his 1,000th game, with whom one suspects there will never be peace. It was Mourinho who beat Wenger in his 500th game in charge of Arsenal in 2005. It is Mourinho whose sides Wenger has never beaten. For all the peace talk over the summer, they are back at loggerheads once again.
It was a day for tributes, and a perfunctory presentation in the training ground car park by the Arsenal chairman, Sir Chips Keswick, who gave Wenger a miniature cannon, designed by the good men of the Woolwich Arsenal who lost their club to north London 101 years ago. In the spirit of Wenger’s distaste for ceremony it was a typically unglamorous affair, taking place where the players’ cars are washed and accompanied by the hum of a broadcaster’s satellite van.
Keswick stumbled over his words, at first thanking Wenger for “1,000 years in charge” before correcting himself. The Arsenal manager picked up on the error and quipped that being in charge for 1,000 games had made him “look 1,000 years old”. It is one of the most likeable aspects of Wenger that, however bad things have got, he has never lost his love of a daft joke, and, unlike other managers one could think of, it does not have to be him telling it.
Given the stage, Wenger took the opportunity to defend his great vision for Arsenal once more. Of the tough decisions taken at the turn of the millennium to look to the future and build the Emirates Stadium. Of the financial toll it had on the team and him as he “sweated” at the end of each season knowing the calamitous effect of failing to qualify for the Champions League. And also the way that he saw football, which was as idealistic as ever.
3 May 1998: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger proudly lifts the championship trophy after the FA Carling Premiership match against Everton at Highbury in London
He was in a lyrical mood. Every defeat was “a scar in your heart that you never forget”. Every game was anticipated with “excitement” and the pursuit of an ideal. “Maybe I run after an idea of making the players perfect, having the ideal game, the perfect game,” he said. “I run after that happiness week after week. Sometimes you touch it a little bit but, of course, it goes and you fight to get it again.”
A club hobbled by their move to a new stadium is Wenger’s version of history, his explanation for not lifting a trophy in the last 500 of his 1,000 games in charge. His argument was that success alone cannot be measured in trophies and that the true level of a manager can be measured by his “consistency”. “In 2006 we were in the Champions League final,” he said. “Nobody speaks about it now but it’s still an achievement. Can you say you have failed that season? I don’t think so.
“We beat Real Madrid with [Zinedine] Zidane and [David] Beckham and all these people but nobody speaks about it. It’s like we have done nothing. Why? Because at the end of the season you don’t parade with the trophy. Had we won the League Cup that season people would say, ‘Ah, they won the League Cup in 2006’.”
This is the Wenger mantra and they will carry him out of London Colney – the training ground he pushed the club to acquire, redesign and build – before he thinks otherwise. There are many who see it the other way, not least Mourinho, but once again Wenger said that the ghost in the machine, the problem Arsenal did not envisage when the Emirates project began, was the intervention of the new money in English football: Chelsea and Manchester City.
As for Wenger’s future, he was as unequivocal as ever that he would stay beyond the end of his current deal this summer, even though the delay in this long-anticipated new contract continues to be a mystery. Would he be here beyond the 1,110, potentially 1,111, game mark. “I think so, yes. I want to do well... my commitment is full. I do not want to look somewhere else. I want to stay here. There shouldn’t be any uncertainty at all.”
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So he will stay beyond the summer? “My desire is to stay.” Why the delay? “It will be done soon, but I want now to focus on the end of the season.” Unlike Ferguson, it is much harder to imagine Wenger stepping away from the club he has served for so long. He recognises their loyalty but believes that Arsenal owe him a debt for ignoring offers from elsewhere and keeping them competitive in the Emirates-financing years.
“What is fantastic and difficult in our job is that it is very fragile,” he said. “Bad decisions can take you down quickly... of course, I don’t think we are in that position, but for years you had to be careful.”
The message was clear. He has steered them through the difficult years. Now he wants a stake in English football’s new post-Ferguson era, and all the opportunities it offers.
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