Ten years ago, Jose Mourinho was football’s hottest managerial commodity.nStill smelling like champagne from winning the 2003/04 Champions League with FC Porto, the Portuguese manager quickly sought fresh scenery—with Roman Abramovich’s bold Chelsea project whetting his appetite. It worked.
Winning the Premier League in consecutive seasons—with 95 points in 2004/05 and 91 points in 2005/06—Mourinho‘s success came at the expense of two great clubs and managers. The first was Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, the second Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
The season before Mourinho‘s first Stamford Bridge stint,Wenger produced arguably the greatest feat in top-flight history—completing an unbeaten season with 2003/04’s Invincibles; all signs pointed to an extended Gunners reign at the summit of English football.
It failed to materialise.
Since their undefeated season, Arsenal have won just two major trophies (the 2004/05 and 2013/14 FA Cups)—causing Wenger‘s position to become a constant source of speculation and rumour.
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Not helping matters, the mercurial Mourinho has proven an incessant thorn to the Frenchman’s efforts. His return to the Premier League last summer has not changed proceedings to date: Meeting 12 times in the past decade, Wenger is yet to beat a Mourinho managed team (0W-5D-7L).
Add the “voyeur”/”specialist in failure” fiascos, Chelsea’s 6-0 drubbingof Arsenal on Wenger‘s 1,000th game or Cesc Fabregas’ summer transfer and the mood elevates with little provocation when a London Derby beckons.
Mourinho and Wenger are linked not only by their perceived disdain for each other but their distinctly opposed footballing ideologies.
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One is a bastion of the beautiful game. Wenger‘s Arsenal play, arguably, the Premier League’s best football when clicking—their free-flowing brand can be simply unplayable at times.
The other has no reservation playing ugly to earn results. Mourinho‘s Chelsea have the capability to play expansive football but areunapologetically staunch when situations warrant grit.
Styles make fights, as the old boxing adage goes, and Mourinho‘s appears to have the upper hand in this particular bout. Wenger‘s tactical stubbornness has—on many occasions—been his downfall. The adaptable Mourinho, however, can play aggressor or counter-puncher all the same.
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Ahead of the London derby this Sunday, Wenger has made one key adjustment, one which might change the past decade’s familiar narrative—that being the idea of Francis Coquelin; the defensive midfielder is not just a player but the tangible proceeds from an apparent epiphany.
Wenger, after seasons without, has miraculously discovered his team’s overt-attacking nature requires an anchorman; the 23-year-old has brought much-needed balance. Winning 20 of their last 23 matches since Coquelin‘s introduction, Mourinho has a different Arsenal equation to solve this weekend.
Chelsea will not have simple access to Arsenal’s back four; there should be some level of midfield support providing resistance—halting the Blues’ powerful counter-attack more than they are accustomed at the Emirates.
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Playing for the title, Mourinho can wrap the league by Wednesday with two consecutive away victories at Arsenal and Leicester City. How this affects the Portuguese’s stratagem ahead of the derby will be interesting to monitor.
If he attempts to win the game (setting up a potential title-clinching match three days later), the public could witness a defensively sound Arsenal versus an attack-minded Chelsea—a role reversal of sorts.
What is more likely, though, are the Blues setting up shop, staying compact and attempting to stifle Wenger‘s proficient offence. Should these typical battle plans be issued—even with Coquelin—this fixture invariably ends in a stalemate, extending Wenger‘s Mourinho misery into yet another campaign.
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Competing in the same city, for the same trophies and the finite supply of managerial power, the fight within the battle is always box office when Mourinho andWenger come together.
As two of the three best managers in the Premier League era, their never-ending feud is possibly the most entertaining subplot running in world football.
If only the derby can match their intensity.
We live in hope.