Another thrashing sends Wenger back to the drawing board
For the third time this season, Arsenal have imploded when faced with the challenge posed by one of their main rivals
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. Maintained his unbeaten record against Arsenal and rival manager Arsene Wenger in spectacular fashion. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Arsenal’s record defeat to Chelsea on Saturday saw both managers break with the usual post-match protocol. Jose Mourinho, in keeping with his recent habit, walked away down the tunnel before the referee had blown for full-time, declining the opportunity to shake hands with Arsene Wenger. Then Wenger decided not to appear at the press conference, sending a spokesman to relay the lame explanation that Arsenal’s bus was about to leave and the driver wouldn’t wait.
In both cases the breach of protocol was for the best. The last thing Wenger would have wanted after a six-nil defeat would be to have to accept Mourinho’s commiserations. As for the press conference, what would have been the point of hearing what Wenger had to say? We’ve heard it all before.
When Arsenal conceded six at Manchester City, Wenger spoke of “little things going against us,” mentioned “tired legs,” and accepted personal responsibility for what had happened, since certain of his tactical decisions had misfired. When they conceded five at Anfield, he said they had been “too passive”, that “the focus was not at the level you want it to be for that kind of game,” and again he accepted personal responsibility: “we have to think what did not work today, myself included.”
Plainly Arsenal did not think too hard about what did not work that day, because all the same things happened again on Saturday. Again they took the field with a game plan of hopeless naivety, again they tried to play in their opponent’s half although they did not have the quality to do so. Again they were destroyed on the counter-attack by stronger, faster, hungrier opponents.
Mortification has become routine. If one thrashing could be regarded as a misfortune, and two thrashings looks like carelessness, what are you to make of three?
The Arsenal board’s tolerance in the face of so many of what Andre Villas-Boas would call “expressive results” supports the theory that they wouldn’t mind Wenger never winning another trophy as long as he kept the money coming in.
More generously, they might consider that the struggles of Manchester United this season make a persuasive case against changing a long-serving, successful manager.
But the situations are rather different. Ferguson really was successful, while Wenger now has only the memories of success. They are memories he shares with the older fanbase but not with his players, none of whom has ever won a trophy under his management.
Wenger has succeeded in the broader sense of transforming Arsenal into a superpower in football finance. That success has certainly endeared him to his employers but it has also weakened his strategic position, since Arsenal are no longer dependent on his unique ability to keep a team in the Champions League while running a profit on transfers. They now generate enough income to lose money on transfers like the other big clubs. They have the economic resources to try another way.
So the decision facing Arsenal this summer is perhaps less like the quandary Manchester United faced in 2013, than the choice facing Chelsea in the summer of 2004.
Claudio Ranieri was a popular manager whose team had just finished second in the league, behind Wenger’s Invincibles. But players including Frank Lampard chafed against certain elements of Ranieri’s style. As Lampard explained in his autobiography, if Ranieri finished sixth, the target for next year would be fifth. “Ranieri would never have said, ‘Right. Let’s win the league. Let’s win every game.’ . . . he didn’t want to heap too much pressure on the players or himself.”
Roman Abramovich sacked Ranieri and hired Jose Mourinho. Mourinho made many changes: building aerobic fitness with small-sided games rather than sprint sessions, introducing pre-match speeches and huddles, allowing the players to eat occasional cookies if it made them feel better, and so on. The biggest change, however, was that the team now had a manager who directly challenged them to win.
According to Lampard, Mourinho told the players: “You will read in the press and hear in the media me saying that I don’t expect us to win the league in my first season . . . I want you to be very clear that I have said this only to keep the pressure off all of us. I also want you to know that I do expect us to win the Premiership this season. I know that we will. We are winners and winning is all that matters. I don’t want to be second or third. We want to win the league and we will.”
Lampard’s reaction: “I felt myself draw a sharp breath - no more of the Ranieri method of focus on performance and improve on last season. Winning was everything - new manager, new Chelsea. It was just what we needed.”
In a BBC interview broadcast before Saturday’s match, Nemanja Matic was asked whether Mourinho was telling the Chelsea players the same thing he’s been telling the press: that Chelsea are not the favourites to win the league. Matic grinned, hesitated, and finally answered that he could not break the confidence of the dressing room.
We can be sure that Mourinho’s message to his “little horses” has been just the same as in 2004. He doesn’t just expect them to win, he demands it. What Wenger says to his players is less obvious. All we can say is that his message no longer appears to be having the desired impact.