If you watched Arsene Wenger closely during Arsenal’s most recent defeat to Chelsea you would have seen a man very much on the edge. Seldom relaxed, the Arsenal manager paced up and down frantically, appeared exasperated at every decision and, of course, wandered incensed into the opposition technical area.
Long gone is his reputation as a composed operator against far more emotional rivals, but he is rather in a perennial state of agitation prone to have his feathers ruffled by even the most innocuous of incidents.
It is far from a difficult to get under the skin of Wenger these days, but no opposing manager is able to do quite as effectively as his opposite number on Sunday, Jose Mourinho. There would seem to be a genuine dislike between them, and a physical altercation between this sparring pair has been on the cards for the best part of a decade.
The inability to keep one’s emotions in check during the cauldron created by these intense encounters is not an undesired characteristic per se, but Wenger’s inability to maintain his composure during his side’s most important encounters should be cause for concern.
Rarely is Wenger perturbed in games of less consequence, although there has been the odd occasion, and these touchline histrionics against Arsenal’s nearest rivals demonstrate how frustrated he has become at his inability to find a formula to achieve results of note.
Arsenal’s performances against the Premier League’s so called ‘top four’ over the past five or so seasons have been desperate, with just one victory in 17 matches and an enormous 14 defeats. It is a statistic beyond embarrassing, and arguably more shameful than the club’s recently ended trophy drought.
Wenger is not a manager for the big occasion and now, perhaps, it is beginning to dawn on him. His clash with Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was one borne from a moment of irritation but years of resentment and vitriol. The only surprise is that it has taken this long to happen.
How many times has Wenger managed to overcome Mourinho in their 12 meetings? Zero, zilch, zippo. Whichever way you dress it up, it is an appalling record and one that would be terminal for a manager at any other top club, and some of lesser standing. But Wenger claims it “does not bother [him] at all.”
How many Arsenal fans believed their side were in with a genuine chance to victory when they faced Chelsea at the weekend? The Gunners have their injuries, of course, but there would have comparable pessimism even with a team at full strength.
This inherent sense of defeatism has been caused not just by Wenger’s failure to secure the results his team require, but also his ineptitude when it comes to the psychological battle, and the lack of inspiration or encouragement he offers before key encounters.
There is no requirement for Wenger to become involved in mind games or embroiled in the petty disagreements that Mourinho enjoys so much, but the frequency with which the Chelsea manager lands blows both on and off the field is surely no coincidence.
Mourinho is involved in controversy more often than Wenger, but the way he parades around the technical area inciting the opposition is comes from the confidence success breeds, rather the exasperation that underlines Wenger’s meltdowns.
Nobody who is a good manager is really good loser, and there is nothing wrong with any displays of passion from the men or women in charge. Supporters will relate more readily with a coach that shows the same level of emotion as them, but passion does not disguise incompetence, nor does a more measured or withdrawn approach.
Wenger fluctuates between the two depending on the match situation and, when he is most charged up tends to be when his team unravels. There is a direct correlation between Wenger disintegrating and Arsenal doing the same, with the manager failing to provide the calming influence when his players need him most.
Whereas the fire possessed by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho serves as an inspiration to their teams, Wenger at his most passionate is detrimental to Arsenal and this will continue to damage the prospects of getting results when it really matters.
This is not to suggest Wenger does not possess the nous or tactical expertise to overcome Chelsea, Manchester City and others - it is in that impressive mind of his somewhere - but it can’t be coincidental that his team is often plundered.
There was, of course, no thrashing handed out by Chelsea on this occasion, but Arsenal offered little to suggest they deserved even a single point. Chelsea were prepared to allow the visitors plenty of the ball, confident in their ability to repel any advances.
It worked, as it always seems to for Mourinho. When is the last time that can be said of Wenger? He, of course, would never accept setting up a team in the same manner as Mourinho, and there is no need to do so. But the Portuguese can adapt where, as his damning record proves, Wenger certainly can’t.
Wenger’s qualities are numerous and he is, without question, one of the great managers we have seen in this country. But when push comes to shove, as it did on the touchline in west London this weekend, these big game malfunctions will continue to haunt him.
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