Mourinho vs. Wenger: The Enduring Rivalry

Hell has yet to freeze over. Pigs haven’t taken to the sky. But Jose Mourinho has agreed with Arsene Wenger. In October 2015 Mourinho was reprimanded by the FA for calling referee John Moss “weak”, stating that he agreed with Arsene Wenger who made a similar remark previously. Taking Sir Alex Ferguson, the ultimate cantankerous football boss, out of the equation, and the longest running managerial rivalry has to be that between Jose Mourinho, of Chelsea, and Arsene Wenger, of Arsenal. The bosses of arguably the two biggest clubs in London have been trading insults back-and-forth and vying for titles since 2004, like a clash of two heavyweight greats from the golden era of boxing, when epic 15 round battles between the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were the norm.


Wenger arrived in London in 1996, when Mourinho was just a twinkle in the eye of football fans, following a year in Japan managing Nagoya Grampus Eight. Upon his arrival he was seen as a real innovator, bringing tactics and nutritional information deemed way ahead of their time. With the solid foundations built by his predecessors, he added fine attacking players such as Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Anelka. By 2005, after 9 years at the club, he’d racked up three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. In 2006, Arsenal narrowly missed out on Champions League glory after losing 2-1 to Barcelona in Paris. Wenger was renowned for unearthing hidden gems, polishing them and then selling them on for great profit. Anelka is a perfect example of this, arriving at Highbury for peanuts in 1997 before being lured to the Bernabeu for over £22m just two years later. Youngsters across the globe were attracted by the prospect of early first team chances. Players such as Cesc Fabregas upped sticks to join Arsenal, becoming a first team regular at the age of sixteen.


Nowadays Wenger’s side are lauded for their brilliant, fluid, football but also their lack of killer instinct. They are deemed too “soft” to win trophies. People who don’t recall his early sides seem to forget that they were littered with tough men, horrible to play against and as cynical as they come. Patrick Vieira, Manu Petit, Jens Lehmann and Martin Keown cases in point. Despite winning football matches and playing great football, these sides weren’t always the most likeable. The “Wenger Way” hasn’t always been as it is now. Maybe that should be seen as a positive: he’s been able to move with the times and to adapt his style based on the personnel available. On the other hand, after that 2006 final in Paris it was another eight years until silverware was added to the Arsenal trophy cabinet, when two successive FA Cups gave the Frenchman a bit of a reprieve from entitled fans with short memories calling for his head. Even at the start of this season, the manager was lambasted for “only” signing Petr Cech. Since when was signing one of the best ‘keepers of his generation for a cut-price £10m deemed as a failure? Especially as it annoyed Mourinho in the process. And since when was wasting money in the transfer window on a large influx of players been a proven recipe for success? Despite a stutter in the Champions League, Arsenal appear back on track. Impressive wins, particularly against Bayern Munich and Manchester United, see the Gunners well-placed in both the league and Europe. The manner of the defeat in the return game in Germany against Bayern is a cause for concern, and points to the lack of spine the “new” Arsenal is often accused of. However, in general they are back to playing good football and winning big games. The squad looks settled, and players such as Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin are thriving given the trust placed in them by Wenger when fans were screaming for a “big” name.


Since Arsenal moved into their stadium they have sensibly cut their cloth accordingly. Unlike Manchester United, the club has no debt and has a beautiful stadium to show for it. All the while they have been competitive despite not pulling up any trees domestically or abroad. Unfortunately in the modern game, sustainablility and sensible running of football clubs is underappreciated. In the days of Twitter and Sky Sports News, fans want big drama, yellow “breaking news” flashes across the bottom of the screen and the importation of overhyped and expensive foreign imports. Celebrating finishing fourth was widely derided, and rightly so, but that is part of a bigger problem in modern football culture in which finishing in the “top 4” is seen as the ultimate barometer of success.


Jose Mourinho arrived in Britain in 2004 to great fanfare, fresh from winning the Champions League with an unfancied Porto. He dubbed himself the “Special One” and endeared himself to the British media, always thirsty for back page headline fodder. He managed to live up to his name, albeit with huge financial backing from Roman Abramovich, winning two successive league titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the Community Shield. Whilst the team of 2004-2007 won’t be remembered by fans outside of Stamford Bridge, it blended a core of English players such as Frank Lampard, John Terry and Joe Cole with fine imported talents such as Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben.


Mourinho left Chelsea after just three years into his first spell at the club following a supposed rift with the club’s Russian owner. Little did we know that this three-year meltdown would become a characteristic of the Portuguese. He went on to manage Internazionale and Real Madrid, winning trophies yet causing major controversy along the way and departing under a cloud after a few years. His trophy haul is undoubtable, but so is his caustic personality, and this has caused several major clubs to deem him “not worth the hassle”. The low point surely was him putting his finger in the eye of the late Tito Vilanova, at the time the assistant to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, ironically a club that decided he wasn’t for them which clearly rankles with Mourinho. He returned to Stamford Bridge in 2013, promising a desire to stay at Chelsea for the long-term and create a dynasty, something he’d never previously done in his career. Perhaps his personality and management style just isn’t conducive with a long-term plan. His “scorched earth” policy often sees him push his players to the limit, getting great results out of them for a couple of years before it all goes wrong.


The rivalry between Wenger and Mourinho began almost immediately. It was inevitable. Mourinho was the brash new-kid-on-the-block who didn’t respect his elders or the incumbent power structures. The fact that they were both in charge of two of London’s most powerful clubs only added fuel to the fire. Wenger has come under fire for fielding teams without foreigners, and this didn’t escape the attention of Mourinho. Given that the Portuguese had Lampard and Terry at the heart of his team, as well as selecting the likes of Joe Cole and Gary Cahill during his time, perhaps he wins that round. However, perhaps in response to the criticism Wenger has started to show faith with more English players in the last few years. Walcott, Welbeck, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain have become mainstays in his squad, in the unlikely event that they stay fit. On several occasions Mourinho was accused of being “anti-football”. In August 2005 Wenger was quoted as saying “I know we live in a world where we only have winners and losers, but once a sport encourages teams who refuse to take the initiative, the sport is in danger”. Wenger questioned Chelsea’s lack of homegrown talent, before accusing the West London club of playing with a philosophy in which they refuse to take the initiative.


The highlight of the rivalry came when Mourinho called Wenger a “voyeur” due to his apparent obsession with Chelsea. Mourinho stated that he thought Wenger “likes to watch other people” before calling it a “sickness”. Wenger responded shortly after, declaring that “when you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid sometimes and not more intelligent”. Before Arsenal lost to Chelsea in the 2007 league cup final, Wenger questioned Mourinho’s success, basing it on the finances at his disposal. “If you would like to compare every manager you give each one the same amount of resources. After five years you see who has done the most” said the Frenchman. It cannot be denied, in his first spell at Chelsea, Mourinho came out on top. Since he returned to Stamford Bridge he has added another league title to his resume and in February 2014 Mourinho labelled Wenger “a specialist in failure” following eight years without a trophy, obviously before Arsenal added two FA Cups to their honours list. Perhaps the most deluded quote from Mourinho’s lips was when he accused Wenger of speaking about referees and pushing people in the technical area. He went on to say that despite “not achieveing” Wenger still manages to keep his job, calling it a “privilege” that he clearly doesn’t enjoy. One could argue that Wenger himself has fostered an atmosphere at Arsenal in a way that Mourinho has never been able to do. In that sense, Wenger wins. At Arsenal they have a more sustainable model, not a crash-and-burn situation like we see at Stamford Bridge or anywhere else the Portuguese chooses to lay his hat. It may breed titles, but it also leaves a sour taste in the mouth.


The Wenger-Mourinho rivalry could be set to come to an end. Wenger is surely only a couple of years away from hanging up his trademark manager’s jacket; Mourinho could be forced out of Chelsea and out of English football for good. The rivalry has gone back and forth. Mourinho may have dominated the exchanges between the two, landing the cleanest and sharpest blows, but it looks like he has burnt himself out whilst the patient thinker outlasts him. Maybe this season Wenger will land that final knockout blow in the closing stages of battle against his great nemesis, if Mourinho lasts that long. Or maybe Arsenal will, well, “do an Arsenal” and maybe will Mourinho will defy the odds. It will be an interesting ride whilst it lasts.


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