It is the sweetest of victories for Arsene Wenger. He has won bigger trophies than this. Every single one, perhaps. However, on a sunbathed day in London, a shield between two London clubs at a neutral London venue will be a particularly saccharine moment in the Frenchman’s long managerial career.
After 14 clashes – and I do mean clashes – between the two heavyweight managers, Wenger’s Arsenal finally managed to make a dent in Mourinho’s invincible armour when it comes to contests between London’s finest. And they did it the Mourinho way, too. They sat back and waited for Chelsea to come and attack them, and hit them relentlessly on the counterattack, with Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain haring up the pitch making that tactic all the more potent. Then, they were defensively solid, not allowing much by way of openings to Chelsea. They frustrated them, closed them down and squeezed them out of the game. They even had Petr Cech in their goal, for heaven’s sake. Wenger took the Portuguese on at his own game – and beat him at it.
It is an encouraging harbinger for Arsenal; a signal that the team is maturing; that it appreciates what it needs to do to see games out; that it recognises gung-ho attack will not win too many matches against the solidity of Mourinho’s Chelsea – zero out of 13, in fact – and that it is beginning to move past its psychological hurdles.
They got the trophy monkey off their back last May and have now won four tournaments in the past 15 months, a pair each of FA Cups and Community Shields. Now Wenger has rid himself of an unwanted statistic that had held true since 2004, when a cocky young Portuguese genius announced himself to the Premier League and established his own club as the top dog in England’s capital city. We may see the floodgates open for Arsenal now. One thing’s for certain, their first League match against each other on September 19th will be one of the more tactically intriguing ones in recent history.
Wenger snubbed Jose Mourinho after the game – nothing exceptional there; they haven’t greeted each other on any of the past few occasions the clubs have met, but the Chelsea manager chose not to let the issue go.
“I believe in a job where you have to respect people and respect everybody. I think it’s vital – I’ve said many times in managers meetings – that managers respect each other,” Mourinho said.
The talk of respect sounded a little hollow, especially coming from a manager who has labelled the Frenchman, amongst a host of other things, ‘a voyeur’ and a ‘specialist in failure’ over the past decade. Today, he accused Arsenal of being too defensive, saying that Chelsea were the only team showing any initiative for the bulk of the game, and that Arsenal abandoned their attacking philosophy. The analysis may well be accurate, but it ill-became Mourinho to deliver it.
It is staggering to hear the Chelsea boss make these statements, not because they sound hypocritical, but because he is far too intelligent not to realise that. Chelsea is the last club in the Premier League who could bemoan a club’s lack of attacking ambition and get any sympathy, something Mourinho is not only aware of but clearly insecure about; so much so that he devoted his entire end-of-year speech at Chelsea’s awards dinner last year to the subject. It was, admittedly, very humorous, but left no doubt that the criticism about his team’s style of play deeply bothered him.
It is therefore all the more churlish of Mourinho to complain. The patent he took out on that style of play must have expired, and Arsene Wenger deployed it unashamedly, not even denying that his team was ‘more concerned to protect our lead than to play’ afterwards. Those tactics are successful; Arsenal know that better than anyone else, and have after all learnt from the best. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, but you try telling Jose Mourinho that tonight.
“I shook a few hands after the game, but there’s nothing special there,” Wenger said when quizzed about the alleged handshake snub.
The pun wasn’t intended, but it would take a loser as sore as Jose Mourinho not to crack a smile at that.