Following Chelsea's relatively (but not completely) comfortable 2-0 win at home to Arsenal at the weekend, there have been various articles and pundits making the argument that if Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger swapped jobs, it could be Arsenal at the top strolling to an inevitable title win, and Chelsea looking destined for another fourth place challenge.
The argument has its merits.
If Arsenal had acted with the same efficiency as Chelsea in last summer's transfer market, to fill the obvious gaps in their team (for Arsenal this being defensive midfield, defensive cover and a top quality striker, for Chelsea a striker and a creative midfielder), then Arsenal could well have been the club with the better side for Sunday's game. If Arsenal could adjust their tactics from game-to-game so that they could neutralise the opposition's attack and clinically expose their faults, then Arsenal would undoubtedly win more of the 'big games'. And, if Arsenal's manager was the one getting under the skin of the Chelsea manager, and not the other way round, then maybe it would be Arsenal's players who had the spikier edge on their opposition.
So either Arsenal fans should be hoping for a real-life Premier League equivalent of Face Off, or they can look longingly across London to their ominous looking title rivals. Certainly, a nine points bridge to the team from Stamford Bridge looks like an unlikely crossing for this Arsenal side at this moment in time.
And yet, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage aren't football managers and they aren't actually going to swap faces. If it did happen, then I think most non-Chelsea fans would cast Mourinho as the baddy, but unlike the movie, this is a baddy that looks as though he'll always win against his 'goodie' opposition Wenger.
And yet, for all its logic, like the movie, the argument is fundamentally flawed. Without wanting to appear an Arsene Wenger - or even an Arsenal - apologist, Wenger continues to be the right manager for Arsenal, as Mourinho is the right man for Chelsea, despite the frustrations that this argument brings. Arsenal, despite their much anticipated arrival to the Premier League lucrative transfer party, with the signings of Ozil and Sanchez, remain a team with dwarfed financial powers compared to Chelsea.
I'm not here making a mid-00s era argument about how Russian-moneyed Chelsea are buying the title etc etc. Chelsea are now long-enough established in the top echelons of both the Premier League and the Forbes wealthy club league to be considered a 'big club' in the same way as the longer-heralded 'big clubs' in England that are Utd, Livepool, then Arsenal. Chelsea currently operate within FFP and are run like any savvy big corporate business - much like Arsenal. In an era where football clubs can be evaluated as businesses, as well as for their footballing performances, Chelsea are up with the best commercial football giants in Arsenal and Man Utd (Utd are 3rd, Arsenal 5th, Chelsea 6th in the world, according to Forbes).
The reality is that, while Arsene Wenger remarked about Chelsea's expensively assembled team in his post-match interview on Sunday, Chelsea's recent signings of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas - the signings that look to have swung Premier League 'power' back to West London - were made using the money raised from the player sales of Romelu Lukaku to Everton and David Luiz to PSG. These sales were incredible deals for Chelsea, raising around 70+ million despite it being players that Mourinho never really fancied anyway. Lukaku raised his value through impressive loan spells while Chelsea's other key first team addition, Thibaut Courtois, has had his skills honed in on loan at Athletico these last few years.
Chelsea's recent success is not so much due to extraneous money from a sugar daddy owner - though that source of money obviously was the main contributor to Chelsea's rise to power in the mid-00s - but it is due to intelligent transfer and commercial business done using the success that the initial Abromavich investment yielded. All in all, a good long-term strategy that is conveniently beginning to pay off just as FFP is supposed to be stopping other clubs from attempting the initial burst of investment required to do this.
Mourinho has been the perfect manager for Chelsea to do this - a manager whose approach is all about maxing out any advantage he has, whether it be psychological, tactical or financial. But to say Mourinho would necessarily be a better man for the Arsenal job than Wenger, that's a different story.
Arsenal's strategy has never had the same one-off investment as Chelsea, thus the oft-mentioned need for more gradual development in light of the longer term pursuit of 'big club' revenues through the building of the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal have had to endure a disadvantage - i.e. relative austerity (compared to other 'big clubs' anyway) - rather than Chelsea's advantage. For all of his faults, Wenger has proven to be an adept manager at dealing with a disadvantage to keep his club competing with clubs with substantial advantages.
This summer, for all the money Arsenal have spent - and its been reported that Arsenal do in fact now pay a higher wage bill than Chelsea for the first time in 10 years - Arsenal have nonetheless been criticised for not making the most of the advantages that the new stadium is now starting to yield them, as most notably evidenced by the purchases of Sanchez and Ozil. The criticism, as noted above, is that while Arsenal's big rival Chelsea bought Fabregas and Costa in one fell swoop early in the summer, Arsenal only impressed by signing Sanchez before they dithered over the striker situation before getting Welbeck on deadline day, passed the chance to resign Fabregas and failed to add either the much-vaunted defensive midfielder or any defensive cover.
Apart from the lack of defensive cover situation, which borders on negligence by the Arsenal hierarchy, there are caveats to each of these criticisms. Defensive midfielders of, say, Matic's quality are not as abundant as people think and there is a view at Arsenal that Callum Chambers might develop into this position given a season or two; there aren't millions of top quality strikers going around either and Welbeck could well develop into a top one and for a relatively cheap (by these days' standards) price; signing Fabregas, meanwhile, would not have solved the DM position (he plays CM or CAM) and would have jeopardized the development of Wilshere and Ramsey (the latter one of the top midfielders in the league last season) while potentially undermining last season's top price signing in Ozil (let's just leave it at that for Ozil for now).
But more pertinently, Arsenal are still not likely to spend top money on more than a couple of top players every summer, and while this may be attributed by many to Wenger's stubbornness, it is more down to the mindset of the club - both delivered and shaped by Wenger - that they are still disadvantaged to the extent that such spending sprees would be unwise. Ever pragmatic, while Arsenal may indeed have significant cash reserves in the bank, with their return to financial prominence still a gradual one, spending sprees a la City and Chelsea are not likely because they don't have the same sort of short-term buffer that Chelsea and City's available huge lump investments provide.
Furthermore, having maintained a decent operating level of performance on and off the pitch through gradual development, it would be odd of Arsenal to go against their prudence by completely changing tact. This goes down, to some, as Wenger-ian stubbornness, but its more in keeping with maintaining an approach that has paid dividends off the pitch, and these dividends are still the best means for a consistent ability to improve on the pitch.
For all the sense of deja va already at Arsenal this season, with tactical shortcomings, injuries and defensive deficiencies still major and avoidable factors for on the on-the-pitch disadvantages, Arsenal are on a general upward curve.
In terms of the longer term analysis of Arsenal sides over the Wenger era, you could say that this is a fourth chapter for the Frenchman. The first was the 1998 side built around the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieira, and the famous back four; the second was the Vieira, Henry, Pires, Campbell side (also known as The Invincibles - you may have heard of them); the third was the youth experiment of Fabregas, van Persie, Nasri et al; the fourth is the current side built around a young British core of Ramsey, Wilshere and others, blended with experienced internationals and a marquee signing here and there.
Only the third of those sides - the one most affected by Emirates-induced austerity - can be blamed with failing to fulfil their potential, at this stage, as the fourth one may still do so. The youth experiment ultimately failed not for a lack of talent, but for a lack of the right blend of talent with experience with loyalty. The apex of that failure was 2011 - the season Spurs really should have finished above Arsenal but somehow didn't - and since the singings of Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud in the summer of 2012, Arsenal have been evolving into the side they are today, with Ozil and Sanchez the two star additions.
The great Wenger invincible team did not win trophies immediately. Arsenal came second to Man Utd 3 years in a row between 1999 and 2002, not winning any trophies in that time. But by the time they reached their peak in 2002-2004, the combinations between the likes of Henry, Pires, Vieira, Bergkamp and Ljungberg were so brilliantly practiced and perfected, that they had become one of the most irresistible and irrepressible teams in the Premier League era.
This fourth chapter Wenger team cannot yet be compared to that one - there are still gaping holes in this side that preclude comparison - but it is evident that Wenger's strategy is one of perfecting and developing a side that can eventually become comparable. As is so often the way with Wenger sides, the strategy is that of potential and the only judge of the success of this approach will be that of historical hindsight, and the league is inarguably more competitive now than it was in the early 00s. But because Arsenal's approach, under Wenger, has always been about perfecting potential rather than buying it in, as was the case with the team spearheaded by Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie and all, you can only judge its successes or failures after the chapter is definitely over - something which the ramshackle 8-2 defeat to Man Utd marked.
It may be frustrating for Arsenal fans and critics, but this is Wenger's approach, it was the one that bought success in the first two chapters of his tenure, but was frustrated in the third. But, with Arsenal's business model still one of gradual development, not instant gratification, we will not really be able to judge this current chapter when either Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil et al have won a famous title in the next three years, or they've all gone off to Barcelona and Man City.
It is this sort of patience and uncertainty that precludes the restless and impatient, and because of these things, constantly successful Mourinho from being anywhere near the right fit for the Arsenal model. For a club that continues to model itself on actualizing potential, Wenger is still the right man.Suggest a correction