Frenchman confident his team will bounce back against Chelsea on Monday as he seeks first win over José Mourinho
It came as no great surprise to Arsène Wenger to see his old adversary José Mourinho patrolling touchlines and cajoling the blue-shirted players of Chelsea again. Never go back? "I don't know if you can say never in our game," Wenger says. The Arsenal manager, who remains enthralled and endeared by English football, has heard it often enough. He has had numerous conversations with people who have left the Premier League, seduced to taste football overseas, only to pine for a return. The intensity of it gets under their skin. Wenger always felt that would be the case for Mourinho.
"It looks like it," he muses. "Players are the same. 'Ah, maybe I go to Italy, maybe I go to Spain.' But they always come back. Why? Because this is a football country. There is something special in this country about the game. When the foreign managers are here they do not always like all of it – but they all like to come back."
Wenger feels differently about taking on Mourinho's Chelsea these days. More equal. More calmly confident. In the first chapter of this duel, he had to absorb some painful body blows, but he senses Arsenal need no longer have any inferiority complex about a London rival that outpowered them for several years. "I think it is more of a level playing field," he says. "We had restricted financial resources for years. Everybody knows that. It's simple."
Chelsea's ascent, while Arsenal were scaling back to engineer the move to the Emirates Stadium, was the backdrop to Wenger's agonising record against Mourinho (no wins in nine encounters). Although the tables have not exactly turned, Arsenal feel readier than they have since their last league title a decade ago to square up to Chelsea, eyeball to eyeball.
Monday night's contest has heavy implications for Arsenal's title challenge, after Liverpool went top of the table on Saturday. Another defeat will leave Wenger's team one point behind the leaders and raise questions about their capacity against fellow title contenders after losses at the Etihad and Old Trafford. A victory will guarantee that they lead the Premier League at Christmas and prove they have more character nowadays to bounce back after a disappointment.
This is the third time this season that Arsenal have had to react quickly to a demoralising league defeat. After the opening-day loss to Aston Villa, they won eight out of nine games (and drew the other). After losing at Old Trafford, they won three on the spin.
Wenger reckons his team are rested, rebooted and ready to respond after a bad week. "We had three disappointing results – Everton, Naples and Man City. That's why it's enough. I don't feel the doubts have crept in. We have been in much more difficult situations. Three big games in six days was difficult and I knew that somewhere, at City, we were in trouble. I feel the team has the power to respond."
As for the suggestion that this game has special meaning because of Mourinho's unblemished record over him, Wenger insists that any remnants of an old feud are irrelevant. "What is important on the day of the game is the players, and that the managers sit back," he says. "I just want my players to be focused on the game and not what's happening between the two managers. That is not interesting."
It is, though. Pragmatist v purist; cut-throat winner v long-term dreamer – Mourinho and Wenger always seemed so at odds with each other's fundamental philosophies. Wenger's longevity during the tightened-belt years raised Mourinho's hackles. The ratio between the Frenchman's length of service and the number of years without delivering a trophy never made sense to a win-aholic such as Mourinho. Even on the eve of his first match back in the Premier League, the Portuguese suggested he would resign if he managed for three years without hoisting some silverware.
At times, it was difficult to argue Wenger's case for hanging on. But in an era when it is increasingly commonplace for Premier League managers to be pawns in the vanity projects of super-wealthy owners, who is to say that Arsenal were not right to stand by their man during the barren seasons? Is it right to measure achievement only by medals, or should Arsenal and Wenger be applauded for holding their nerve as they waited until they could be strong enough to compete more seriously?
Intriguingly, Mourinho rates his old charge Mesut Özil as the superstar signing who can sustain Arsenal's title chase. Wenger recognises his jewel is a little jaded and will give him a break "at some stage". But not now.
Özil is not used to festive football and that can be a tall order for a player new to English football. "We had that problem with Jens Lehmann when he came from Germany," Wenger recalls. "Mesut has played a lot, but now we had a little break, a little breather, hopefully he has recovered."
Wenger needs all of his weapons to ensure that the second chapter of his Mourinho experience turns into a different story.