Those who have worked closely with Arsene Wenger during his 20 years as Arsenal manager will tell you that Jose Mourinho never could get under the Frenchman’s skin, no matter how low he stooped in trying to do so.
“It has never bothered Arsene,” one source close to Wenger told ESPN FC. “He was always quite serene about it. Mourinho could never get to him.”
There are two sides to every story, of course. The Wenger loyalists perhaps brush over the physical evidence of a feud that now extends beyond a decade when insisting that their man has always been able to rise above the bile spouted by the self-styled Special One who, love him or loathe him, has dominated the pair’s football rivalry.
Wenger has managed just one victory in 15 games against teams managed by Mourinho, and that win came in an encounter even the Football Association concede is not classed as a competitive fixture: the 2015 Community Shield at Wembley. Still, competitive game or not, Mourinho was quick to dash away from the dugout in order to avoid shaking Wenger’s hand after his Chelsea team had been beaten by his old foe’s Arsenal outfit.
And so much for Wenger being “serene” when it comes to dealing with Mourinho. After shoving the then-Chelsea manager on the touchline during a 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge in October 2014, the contrite Wenger shrugged his shoulders and admitted, “We have quite a substantial past.”
And so the rivalry resumes at Old Trafford on Saturday, with Wenger’s Arsenal taking on a Manchester United team that even Mourinho has been unable to kick-start since succeeding Louis van Gaal in June.
With Mourinho performing like a struggling captain attempting to turn an oil tanker 180 degrees in rough seas, Wenger may just have the perfect opportunity to end his 12-year wait for a Premier League victory over the Portuguese this weekend. But whatever happens, do not expect the occasion to pass quietly. There is too much at stake for both men, and that is before it starts to get personal.
For example, Wenger certainly owes Mourinho a heavy dose of his own medicine. The verbal insults delivered by both men have often crossed the line — Wenger reacted to being called a “voyeur” by Mourinho by claiming “when you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid.” But it is the defeats that sting the most, and Mourinho produces a devilish grin when he is reminded of Chelsea’s 6-0 victory over Arsenal in March 2014, which was perhaps the cruelest way to mark Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of the club.
Revenge at Old Trafford on Saturday would not only confirm Arsenal’s title credentials but potentially send Mourinho and United into a tailspin, with it being anyone’s guess as to the final destination.
Mourinho is swimming against the tide at United, with results and performances falling well short of his and the club’s standards. He is lighting fires in the dressing room, venting his anger at match officials and searching in vain for a winning formula, so one can only imagine the gloom that Wenger will inflict if his players can emerge victorious on Saturday.
Wenger has already made the first move in attempting to lower the temperature ahead of the game, insisting he will shake Mourinho’s hand, but will the United manager reciprocate? It is a whole new dynamic for the former Chelsea manager, because for the first time, he must now face Wenger with a weaker team.
When Mourinho arrived in England in 2004, Arsenal may have been the reigning champions, having won the title as “the Invincibles” months earlier, but Mourinho’s Chelsea were a strong, powerful, menacing team in his own image and they were game-changers, both for the Premier League and for Wenger. Chelsea and Mourinho left everyone behind thanks in no small part to Roman Abramovich’s lavish investment, but while Sir Alex Ferguson and United (and then Manchester City) learned how to catch up, close the gap and eventually overhaul the Stamford Bridge club, Wenger and Arsenal fell into a cycle of underachievement and failure.
They have still not won the Premier League since Mourinho and Chelsea broke the mould in 2004-05. Wenger may just finally have found the formula, but it has taken 12 years. Wenger’s obsession with style over substance has been in direct contrast to Mourinho’s approach, which is why the “specialist in failure” barb was aimed at the Arsenal manager from his Chelsea counterpart in February 2014.
Mourinho made his remarks based on Wenger’s recent honours list, which amounts to two FA Cups in 12 years, but he made them from a position of strength. He has now vacated the peak of the mountain, however, and he is looking up at Wenger’s team, who are playing eye-catching football AND winning at the same time.
Mourinho? He has so far been unable to manage either with United. The brash young upstart has now been replaced by a greying street fighter with the scars to show for it, but his unbeaten run against Wenger has remained unchecked.
If Mourinho can extend that sequence with United on Saturday, it may just enable him to ignite his revolution at Old Trafford and get the club on an upwards trajectory once again. But lose and the top four will begin to disappear over the horizon, with Wenger waving back to him as Arsenal pull away.
So Wenger can be serene as he approaches the weekend; he can travel to Manchester knowing that, for once, he has the upper hand and the power. But perhaps that makes Mourinho more dangerous and unpredictable.