Arsene Wenger burst onto the scene in English football and changed the game. His stylish way of playing football charmed everyone.
But it wasn’t so much about the style, more about his principles and his approach.
Wenger is a bit of a self-made man. He wasn’t a big name in French football, although he did win a Ligue 1 title with Strasbourg. It was in management where he made his name, and his intelligent thoughts on the game and his degree in economics made him viewed as a philosopher of the game.
He’s a real footballing romantic who charmed football with an attacking approach. His teams play with a cautious flair.
And then along came Jose Mourinho, himself a self-made man. He came to England as European Champion, but he had to start right from the bottom rung, even lower than Wenger.
Yet if they have that in common, it doesn’t mean their footballing ideals are shared. Mourinho came to the Premier League and ruined the good thing Wenger had going.
We’ve known for years about the aggro between the two managers, but the bad blood will be intensified through the lens of the media and also through the pressures of a title race.
The mind games will start early (indeed, they may have started already) and the media will do everything they can to create more bad blood.
The two have been at each others’ throats for years, but somehow it feels different now. What used to be a war fought exclusively on ideological grounds now seems like a war being fought because they are title rivals.
The Red vs Blue battle is no longer just a fight between romanticism and pragmatism, and that’s because Arsene Wenger seems to have changed tack over the past few months.
The Community Shield was Wenger’s first win over Mourinho in 14 attempts, stretching back over the 11 years since the Chelsea manager first came to England.
After that game, Mourinho blasted Wenger for abandoning his principles and defending the lead for most of the game, after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored midway through the first half.
Jose Mourinho is the king of such a pragmatic approach. Not only do Chelsea routinely grab a lead and defend it, but last season’s title win was built on such principles: Chelsea got a lead over Manchester City in February-time, then played conservatively for the rest of the season, doing nothing stupid and winning the league easily. Mourinho is not a man given to taking unnecessary risks and he knows what to do to win trophies.
But if Mourinho is the king of the pragmatists, then what does Wenger’s change in approach make him, if not an upstart pretender to the crown of the conservatives?
Wenger must be praised, however, for his willingness to change direction. His team still has so much attacking firepower that it’s impossible to think of Arsenal as a defensive, pragmatic team. It’s just that Wenger has realised he needs to have that club in his bag if he wants to win a league title.
Mourinho has had it in his bag all of his career. Wenger did not win a trophy for nine years between 2004 and 2013. In that period, the Mourinho won 11 major honours, including a European Cup and league titles in three different countries, always playing the same way. Clearly you get a good shot with that club.
Mourinho’s arrival on the London scene in 2004 may coincide with Wenger’s trophy drought. It is not, however, a coincidence. Mourinho changed the face of Premier League football with his style of play.
The fact we talk so often about the ‘Makelele role’ isn’t simply praise of Claude Makelele himself for carving out a position that seemed so necessary to the game, it’s praise of Mourinho for playing him there.
Mourinho moved the footballing landscape with tactics like that and, for one reason or another, Wenger hasn’t moved with it.
When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was asked what was her greatest achievement in politics, her reply was as catty as it is notorious: “Tony Blair and New Labour,” she said.
Her brand of unfeeling, Right-wing corporatism changed the face of British society and kept the Tories in power for 18 years. And the only way the Labour Party could beat the Conservatives was to move to the Right and become more Centrist than Socialist.
It’s more than simply a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, it’s a case of one side being so strong that the whole landscape changes and the debate gets pulled to one side. The other side has to adapt simply in order to survive.
But, by becoming more pragmatic in his approach, Arsene Wenger is, at last, building his team to compete in this new setting. That’s why Mourinho is becoming so agitated.
No longer is it just Manchester City’s stellar squad hot on Chelsea’s heels, but there’s an Arsenal side with a newly-found backbone on his trail too.
What Mourinho has achieved is what Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump are trying to achieve. Even if Trump doesn’t get the nomination to be the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidential election, he’ll have succeeded in pulling the whole debate within the party to the Right, and the candidate who wins will have to show a more extreme side because of it.
Similarly if Corbyn doesn’t win his election, whoever does will have to show a more Left-wing side. Just like Mourinho, these guys have moved the setting to a different place.
The political example only goes so far, though. Thatcher may have been happy to see Labour veer more towards the Right, but that’s because her legacy depends on the shape of the country.
Corbyn and Trump might be happy to see their parties speak more to issues they care about. But if Chelsea don’t win titles, Mourinho can’t take comfort in the fact that he changed how football is played in Europe. I doubt Mourinho would be allowed nine trophyless years at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich.
So if Mourinho is criticising Wenger for playing defensively and ‘leaving their philosophy in the dressing room’ it’s because he knows that Arsenal will be more of a threat if they show a steely streak.
Mourinho is attempting to guilt Wenger into playing the way he is used to playing, i.e. trying to win beautifully. Mourinho is hoping for a return to the days when Wenger’s teams simply fail beautifully.
Mourinho and Wenger are part of distinct schools of thought, but the success of Mourinho has changed the debate for good. Wenger is the only man to preside over an unbeaten season in the Premier League.
But that was pre-Mourinho. Post-Mourinho, it’s a different story. The goalposts have been moved, and Wenger has only just started to adapt to the new scenario. The only question that remains is, how didn’t he see this 11 years ago?
The Premier League has changed completely and utterly since the day that Jose Mourinho took over at Stamford Bridge, and Arsene Wenger was left behind.
But after 11 years in the wilderness, (mitigated, perhaps, by a precarious financial state due to the building of a new stadium) Wenger has discovered a formula that might actually win him another title.
Arsenal have added a steely streak. If this were politics, we’d be saying that Wenger has moved away from his firebrand Socialist ideals and embraced a more pragmatic, Capitalist outlook.
That’s Mourinho’s greatest achievement in football. He changed English football to the point where even the great idealist Wenger has had to change his mind.
However, it’s this change that might see Arsenal win their first title since Mourinho came to London in 2004. Sometimes success has its price.