This will be a difficult piece to write with much impartiality. During the years I’ve supported Arsenal (technically since I was 7, in ’89; consciously since about ’95), our traditional rivals in N17 have become less and less worthy adversaries. In all honesty, apart from the occasional anomalous victory that they get over us, much of the time my hatred of Tottenham feels like going through the motions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel sorry for them, but the fact is I don’t really see them as a threat, especially since Bale left. It’s a little bit the same with United. Since Fergie left, their implosion has been a pretty entertaining soap opera. The years when we were the underdogs, challenging to usurp their hegemonic dominance, are over. They’re still a strong team, and certainly pose more of a threat in my eyes than Tottenham, but they definitely don’t precipitate the same reaction of caustic hate in me that they did back in the Teddy Sheringham era.
No, the team for which my vitriol is primarily reserved these days is Chelsea. I used to have no problem with them. Players like Di Matteo, Vialli and especially Zola were great to watch and didn’t seem to be that hateworthy. Chelsea were a good, but not a great team. And then in June 2003, Roman Abramovich bought out Ken Bates, and Chelsea, and the Premier League was changed forever.
The impact was pretty immediate. During the 2003/2004 season, Chelsea signed a lot of players I would have loved to have seen at Arsenal, for example Joe Cole, Damien Duff, and Hernan Crespo. Even though he never succeeded in the Premier League, I thought Veron was a fantastic talent. The next year, they signed Robben, who I had seen enough of during Euro 2004 to admire, but did not know enough of to understand what a nasty piece of work he is. Suffice it to say, my eyes were green, and Roman’s chequebook seemed to know no bounds.
However, the event that capped it for me was seeing us let Ashley Cole sign for them. I really, really didn’t want to let him go. I’d grown up watching England’s repeated failures without any really good players on the left (amongst a multitude of other factors I know) and knew that a young, top-notch left back was invaluable. I did not rate William Gallas very highly at any point during his career (I was pretty spoilt by Adams, Keown and Campbell by that point), whereas I saw Ashley as being a far superior talent, who would spearhead the next generation of Arsenal success. So watching him make the trip across London to Chelsea sparked a pretty bitter ember of resentment within me, which has only blossomed over the last decade.
Their most important signing however, and the one which has been the strongest catalyst for my antagonism, was made just a year after Ambramovich bough Chelsea: Jose Mourinho. Mourinho arrived having just won the Champion’s League with Porto – Chelsea had knocked Arsenal out in the quarter-finals.
One thing I will start off by saying about Mourinho is that I absolutely enjoy having him in the Premier League. I cannot think of a man in football I love to hate more than him. And I think it’s undeniable that he makes the Premier League better, both in terms of his impressive record of results and silverware, as well as his shock and entertainment value in front of the media. He single-handedly makes it more dramatic, and that means more fun to watch. There’s also no questioning the fact that the man is a winner. He’s one of the few managers to have won the Champion’s League with two different clubs, and to have won league titles in four countries. His head to head record against Wenger is wince-inducingly one-sided.
The ongoing verbal and tactical duel between Wenger and Mourinho long ago transcended respectful rivalry and has often turned both men into caricatures of themselves (even Wenger’s often highly tempestuous tug-of-war with Sir Alex eventually simmered down to a mutual admiration). Wenger and Mourinho have antagonised one another from the early days of Mourinho’s first Chelsea tenure. Mourinho labelled Wenger a “voyeur” in August 2005, to which Wenger responded he was “out of order, disconnected with reality and disrespectful” as well as strongly implying that he was “stupid”. Back and forth the verbal jousts went, including in 2014 Mourinho’s infamous labelling of Wenger as a “specialist in failure”, which was brilliantly rebuffed by Oliver Kay in this tweet:
The verbal sparring eventually boiled over into physical aggression during a 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge, where Wenger shoved Mourinho on the touchline.
The frustration in all this – for me at least – is that Wenger is clearly the better man. You don’t hear him making (borderline) sexist remarks about his staff, or rival manager’s wives. He’s been extremely patient and loyal at a club where the fan base have frequently and openly lost patience with him. Players have openly stated that they’ve joined the club because of his nurturing attitude, his willingness to give opportunity where’s it’s due. Mourinho, for his superior winning record and trophy cabinet, frequently comes across supercilious, arrogant and petty.
They’re polar opposites in many respects. Mourinho is ruthless in terms of management and practices damage limitation much of the time in terms of playing style. He’s outspoken and inflammatory with the press, often seeming to wear his heart on his sleeve. Wenger cuts a more laconic, controlled figure with the media, maintaining an aura of inscrutability. His playing style throughout his tenure with Arsenal has been overwhelmingly attack-focused, playing with a simple mandate to score, as elegantly as possible, more goals than the opposition. His patience and loyalty with players such as Rosicky, Van Persie and Diaby through long stints of injury is unparalleled in football. Wenger remains a man who will not sacrifice his vision or his principles in order to win. Conversely, it seems there is nothing that Mourinho wouldn’t do in order to win. Both stances have their own moral value, but unfortunately for Arsenal fans, it’s rare that Wenger’s trumps Mourinho’s in terms of the league table.
The dichotomy between Wenger’s and Mourinho’s schools of footballing thought exemplifies much about each club in the modern age. Mourinho symbolizes much of what we speak about when we speak of modern football: mercenary managers, players priced and paid like small economies instead of individual people. Instant gratification and money being the only ingredient in the recipe to success. Wenger has tried repeatedly to show that silverware can be won on a budget, and that you can win without selling out either morally or financially. That success can be attained through longevity, and through development and execution of a long term plan.
For most football fans, it’s the winning that counts. Winning games and titles brings more money and better players and more success. And who doesn’t want to see their team win? I know how relieved I was when we won the FA Cup against Hull. I’m desperate for us to win a Champion’s League, or to get back the Premier League title. And I’m painfully aware that in the last decade, Chelsea have won a lot more than we have.
With that being said, I’m still stubbornly idealistic enough, like many Arsenal fans I speak to, to believe that Wenger is right (although there’s admittedly a little less stubbornness required after signings like Mesut and Alexis). I believe he is capable of leading us to victory without sacrificing his vision. What Mourinho, and Chelsea epitomize for me is the antithesis of that vision. And that’s why Chelsea have become the team that I despise most of all.