“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” So said sage philosopher Joey Barton Friedrich Nietzsche. I think we can all agree that Jose Mourinho is both a monster and a huge festering abyss on the football landscape and he will be tucked away in his lair staring deep into the soul of this Arsenal team. (Whilst indulging his favourite hobby, ‘puppy discus’).
Much has been written about the rivalry between Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, the opposites that do not attract. Both are habitually used as a journalistic tool to describe the extreme ends of a spectrum. Mourinho is effectively football’s answer to Nigel Farage. He’s a WUM that harnesses the negative energy he attracts from others to empower him. He’s quite successful at doing this, which makes us despise him even more and, in turn, fuels his fire further. It’s a vicious cycle.
Wenger often plays down the personal angle between the two managers. I do not doubt his sincerity when he says that the game will only ever be about both sets of players on the day and how they perform. But I also think that in his private moments, Wenger’s record against Mourinho will wound his pride. I think Arsene’s distaste for the Chelsea manager is reasonably obvious, culminating in a number of spiky ripostes down the years, verbal and physical.
To lose any match deeply hurts Wenger, but to have lost his 1,000th match as Arsenal boss 6-0 to a Mourinho team would have been the vinegar in his stigmata. He might not obsess about it and certainly would not reveal it publicly, but his well publicised record against the Portuguese is a monkey on his back, make no mistake. A sore on the inside of his cheek that would heal if he could only stop tonguing it. In truth, I’m not sure Mourinho reserves a special dislike for Wenger compared to any other manager. Any one of his competitors is fair game as far as Jose is concerned. Even the mild mannered Pellegrini has earned his acid tongued wrath on occasion.
I am almost certainly viewing this through a prism of Arsenal bias, but in an ideal world, I think most people would want somebody like Wenger to triumph over an oligarch funded cynic like Jose. If this match up were a Hollywood script, Wenger would eventually triumph against the non-diegetic backdrop of a string quartet, the credits rolling over a freeze-frame of Arsene punching the air in delight.
However, we do not live in an ideal word. We live in a world where the prevailing ideology is the one backed by the most wealth and power. The financial disparity between Mourinho’s teams and Wenger’s teams is the primary reason for the Indian sign that the Chelsea man holds over him, but it is certainly not the only reason. Lesser managers with smaller resources than Arsene Wenger have bested Mourinho in fewer attempts.
As a coach, Mourinho is a spoiler, prepared to morph into rock, paper or scissors depending on what the situation calls for. It’s made Wenger’s more fluid approach into meat for Jose’s carnivores to feast on. Wenger is a coach that looks to accentuate strengths. To embrace loose logic, if your dribbling ability is at about 90% and your heading is around 50%, Wenger will work to get your dribbling closer to 100% and leave your heading be. Mourinho will identify that opponent with a weakness in the air, and he’ll have his team hit high balls towards him.
This week, Mourinho will be assessing and probing for chinks in Arsenal’s armour. He’ll look at their recent unbeaten run and try to identify weaknesses. This means that Wenger will probably have to profile his team’s recent weaknesses if he wants to defeat Mourinho. I suspect this makes Wenger, the confidence coach, uncomfortable, which may go some way to explaining his poor record against his adversary. Arsenal’s form tends to be very consistent in that you often get spells of bad results and prolonged periods of good results. His tenet is reliant on confidence, which is why his team’s form is rarely patchy one way or the other.
That said, with better players and some harsh lessons learned last season, Wenger has shown signs that he can exploit opposition weakness. He suffocated David Silva at Manchester City, he had his forwards ravenously pressure the Liverpool back three and he had Fellaini shackled at Old Trafford. Even at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal showed a greater willingness to be compact, Jack Wilshere practically man marked Fabregas on that occasion, but little details went against Wenger’s side that day. Francis Coquelin has become a key component since then and he has had a big role to play in the aforementioned successes.
It’s one thing identifying an opponent’s weaknesses and strengths, as Wenger has done for games against City, Liverpool and Manchester United. The difference with facing a Mourinho team is that it will be tailored to your specific weaknesses. So whilst contingency plans will need to be made for the likes of Hazard and Fabregas, Wenger is going to have to consider his own team’s foibles. For instance, the Gunners looked susceptible to the counter attack against Reading, Burnley and Liverpool. Reading and Burnley did not have the attacking quality to take advantage.
One can also quite imagine that Eden Hazard would have made a lot more of a particularly threatening Liverpool breakaway than Lazar Markovic managed a few weeks ago. The Gunners have also indulged a peculiar habit of beginning second halves very slowly indeed. Against West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Burnley and Reading, Arsenal allowed their opponents to start the second half on the front foot. Chelsea do not have to win, so I expect them to be very conservative, but don’t be surprised to see them try to up the momentum at the beginning of the second period.
In the past, Chelsea have been quite happy to squeeze Arsenal and force them to congest all of their play into central areas. If Arsenal are to persist with Aaron Ramsey on the right hand side, Wenger is going to have to consider this from an attacking perspective. At the same time, Hazard starts nominally from the left for Chelsea so defensive caution will be required on the right too, so there may be a temptation to play Danny Welbeck there, or else to move Alexis to the right and Ozil to the left, with Ramsey playing in the centre.
Ozil and Alexis are Arsenal’s best players, so Mourinho will certainly make some kind of plan for them. Moving their positions may add an element of surprise, but could equally risk the recent chemistry the two have been creating. There are a plethora of questions to consider, but to some degree, Wenger is probably going to venture outside his comfort zone to slay his greatest foe. He is going to have to turn the microscope inwards to the weaknesses of his own team, whilst taking care not to over-think them.
It’s a delicately perched tightrope, but it’s about time Arsene made it to the other side to deliver Mourinho a well deserved uppercut.
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