Friday November 18th, 2016

Hindsight is a fine thing, granting significance to moments that at the time passed almost without comment.

When Arsenal beat Chelsea in last season’s Community Shield, it seemed of only vague, academic, importance that Arsene Wenger had at last, at the 14th attempt, beaten Jose Mourinho. It was, after all, only a glorified friendly and Arsenal did succumb in the league at Stamford Bridge a month later. By then, though, Mourinho’s decline was already begun and Chelsea had taken just four points from its first five games of the season. That Community Shield defeat, and perhaps more specifically his demeanor, had been the first public sign that something had gone badly wrong at Chelsea.

For Mourinho, almost a year since his departure from Chelsea, there has been little improvement. His time at United has been fraught. After winning its first three league games of the season, United has won just two of its last eight matches, a run that has left it sixth in the table. Its football has been sluggish and uninspired with moments of comical defensive ineptitude. Mourinho seems to have picked even more fights than usual, and the outburst against referee Mark Clattenburg that led to him being sent to the stands against Burnley was worryingly reminiscent of what happened with Jon Moss against West Ham last season as his emotions began to get the better of him.

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Accusing Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling of being insufficiently “brave” to face Swansea, when the latter had a broken bone in his foot and the former is just returning after a badly broken leg, just seemed weird, a baffling error of judgement. Perhaps another meeting with Wenger, a man he is used to beating, just as United is used to beating Arsenal–Wenger’s side hasn’t won at Old Trafford in the league since 2006–is just what is needed to bring the season back on course. But the opposite possibility exists: should Arsenal win and Wenger break Mourinho’s strange hold over him, it would give additional credence to the increasingly popular theory that Mourinho is losing his grip.

Arsenal is, after all, unbeaten since the opening day of the season. The 3-0 win over Chelsea was its most emphatic performance against a major side for years. Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka have added defensive muscle, while the interplay of Alexis Sanchez, Alex Iwobi and a rejuvenated Theo Walcott, all knitted together by Mesut Ozil has, at times, been breathtaking.

But Arsenal is not without doubts of its own. Although it has won three of its last five league games, all have been somewhat of a struggle. Even at Sunderland, where Arsenal was the significantly better team and won 4-1, a lapse in concentration allowed Sunderland to equalie midway through the second half. Whether those wobbles are evidence of a frailty that will undermine Arsenal or whether its capacity to get through uneasy spells speaks of a great mental toughness, only hindsight will tell. Certainly a victory at Old Trafford would do much to convince the doubters that Arsenal is a serious contender this season.

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Mourinho, in his pre-match comments, managed to downplay the individual feud and stoke the embers all at once, like only he can.

“The record against any other manager being good or bad is not important for me," he said. "The only thing that matters is what you get as a team, our team’s results, our CV if you want to go in that direction and in the Premier League tomorrow is a match between the two managers with the best record in the Premier League.

"Sir Alex Ferguson is not here any more, and tomorrow between the two managers we are speaking about I think six or seven Premier League titles, I’m not sure. I have three, I think, and Mr Wenger has three. Does that mean we should be respective even in periods where our results are not the best? I think Mr Wenger has that respect from all of you, I don’t think I have.

“My last Premier League title was 18 months ago not 18 years ago, I don’t get that respect, to be honest. I just follow my way because I want to win a ninth championship and I want to win a fourth Premier League.”

With Mourinho setting the stage for his 16th meeting vs. Wenger, here are five of their most explosive encounters.

Voyeurgate, October 2005

In the second game of Jose Mourinho’s second season in England, Chelsea beat Arsenal 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.

“Once a sport encourages teams who refuse to take the initiative, the sport is in danger,” Wenger said, initiating a slow burning spat.

Mourinho responded: “Wenger has a real problem with us and I think he is what you call in England a voyeur. He is someone who likes to watch other people. There are some guys who, when they are at home, have this big telescope to look into the homes of other people and see what is happening. Wenger must be one of them–it is a sickness.”

Wenger said he was consulting with his lawyers to which Mourinho replied that he had collected Wenger’s comments about Chelsea into a dossier that amounted to “120 pages."

Stats, April 2008

Mourinho had been dismissed by Chelsea, but that was no reason not to have a pop at Wenger.

“The English like statistics a lot,” he said. “Do they know that Arsene Wenger has only 50% of wins in the English league?”

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Specialist in failure, February 2014

One of Wenger’s great assets is his willingness to answer almost any question put to him, but it can lead him into conflict. With Mourinho likening his side to “little horses” with no chance of winning the title, Wenger was asked why he thought some managers were so reluctant to acknowledge they were in the title race.

“It is fear to fail,” he said.

Mourinho replied in his typical fashion: “Am I afraid of failure? He is a specialist in failure. I’m not. So if one supposes he’s right and I’m afraid of failure, it’s because I don’t fail many times. So maybe he’s right. I’m not used to failing. But the reality is he’s a specialist because, eight years without a piece of silverware, that’s failure."

The following month, Arsenal lost 6-0 at Stamford Bridge in Wenger’s 1,000th game as a manager.

Invasion of the technical area, October 2014

As Arsenal lost 2-0 to Chelsea after a frustrating start to the season in which it had won just two of its opening seven games, Wenger snapped, striding down the touchline, entering the Chelsea technical area and shoving a startled Mourinho.

He subsequently admitted he shouldn’t have reacted.

Community Shield, August 2015

Wenger at last beat Mourinho, who responded with a familiar array of tricks. He initiated a handshake spat by conspicuously congratulating every Arsenal player as they came down the steps after collecting their medals, but turned away just as Wenger reached him.

Then he accused Wenger of betraying his principles by playing defensive football.

The following month, with Diego Costa acting as a provocateur, Gabriel and Santi Cazorla were sent off as Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-0.

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