It is an irony of Premiership life that the two teams with the most distinctive playing styles, Arsenal and Watford, need only peer through a hedge at their adjoining training grounds just off the M25 to spy on each other. Not that there would be much point. Although Adrian Boothroyd admires Arsène Wenger's side, as he said in these pages last week, he is no more likely to start emulating their passing game than Cesc Fabregas is to learn that quaint English phrase "put it in the mixer".
What both managers will do is stick to their widely divergent principles. Somewhere in between them, albeit closer to Wenger's end of the spectrum, is this afternoon's adversary, Jose Mourinho, his double Chelsea champions res-pected rather than revered for their more pragmatic approach. Invited last week to explain why today's opponents win more marks than his team for artistic impression, Mourinho could not quite resist a little dig: "We are a team adapted to reality, which is why Arsenal cannot beat Bolton at Bolton and why Chelsea under me have played three matches and got three victories at Bolton, with zero goals conceded.
"Some managers play every game with the same philosophy... sometimes they beat someone 6-0 and sometimes they lose a game they shouldn't lose." Ouch.
Arsenal supporters, unhappy to be 10 points behind their London rivals but more than satisfied with the team's style of play, may or may not be aware that in almost 150 games under Mourinho, Chelsea have never yet scored six goals and only once managed five. But yes, Arsenal have lost games they should not have done against clearly inferior teams, and surrendered eight points at home this season by failing to pass their way through heavily fortified defences. Are they guilty of attempting in every game simply to pass the opposition to death, unwilling or unable to mix things up sufficiently?
Wenger, naturally, denies it, while insisting that he will not be swayed from his own methods: "You cannot play [every game] exactly the same way, because your opponent forces you to play a different way. But still, you try to dictate your strong point to your opponent.
"You do not always play the same way because sometimes the weak point in the opposite side is in a different position and the team naturally find the weak point. But as well, we have not to think that we are chess players, because a lot is dictated by the inspiration and by the quality of the players on the pitch. We play the football we love and which suits our players."
Even the most fervent believer in that football must be concerned about the quality of player absent this afternoon; Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Kolo Touré, Tomas Rosicky and so on. A back four of Emmanuel Eboué, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou and Gaël Clichy invites comparisons between boys and men when matched against either Chelsea's battle-hardened defence or the strikers they must contain. Again, Wenger is keeping the faith: "When I arrived here, I had Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Martin Keown, they were all 30-plus. I can show you pictures of Tony Adams at 21 or 22 and you see him again at 31 and he is not the same player. He made mistakes at 21 that you would say today of our players, 'horrendous'. You will concede a goal at Bolton that you will not necessarily concede in four or five years with the same players. But in a game like this, the focus is there and with everyone on the ball to defend well, I hope we get away with that."
The manager has always had particular belief in Senderos, not weakened by his difficulties in handling (or even manhandling) Didier Drogba as Arsenal lost three times to Chelsea last season: "He's a strong character, Philippe, resilient, highly motivated and dedicated, and I feel it will be Swiss complicity there, who will support each other well, Djourou and him. Philippe has gone through a whole Champions' League campaign well where he faced some tough opponents like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and [David] Trezeguet. Drogba will see a different Senderos.
"In a big game, I believe 100 per cent that my players can deliver. They are fearless and I want them to show that."
It is true that Arsenal can take genuine encouragement from their performance this season in the fixture most similar to today's, when without Henry they went to Manchester United and deservedly won. That was a day when the spirit and character the manager so often praises shone through, extra spice adding to the taste of revenge for the defeat at Old Trafford that ended the famous 49-match unbeaten run, about which he admits: "I feel still a bit bitter about the way that ended. We want to do it in a different way." The Wenger way, Jose.Reuse content