“Finally, I lost against Arsene,” Jose Mourinho remarked as he exited the Old Trafford press conference room. “Finally, I lost against Arsenal.”
The pent up frustration at the fact that nobody had bothered to ask the Manchester United boss about his improved record over the French manager had finally boiled over as he walked out of the room. It had been at the tip of his tongue, a tongue-in-cheek comment, as he cast his eyes over the gathered press, waiting to pounce on the opportunity to give them a headline.
Of course, Mourinho’s team did not lose. The 1-1 draw where the Gunners managed to grab a point at the death with their only shot on target in the 89th minute handed the Red Devils a third consecutive draw at home after having shared the spoils with Stoke City and Burnley prior to the international break.
But the sarcasm was clearly evident as he grinned on his way out. The Portuguese manager has now extended his unbeaten run over Wenger to 12 league games. The only time the veteran manager got the better of the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ was in a Community Shield game – a glorified friendly that is the curtain-raiser to the season.
Wenger has grown weary of Mourinho’s mind games
Mourinho has done it all before. Why, just before this very game he had been jealous of the respect afforded to Wenger and believed he deserved it as well.
“We should be respected, even in periods when our results are not the best,” he had said with United struggling to make ground on the top four this early in the season.
“I think Mr. Wenger has that respect, but I don't think I have. My last title was 18 months ago, not 18 years ago, but I don't feel I have that respect.”
For the record, Wenger last won the league in 2004. But how does one respect a manager who has no respect for his opponents? Wenger is not the only manager targeted when Mourinho plays his mind games and the United boss relishes this aspect of his job.
Whenever the topic of Mourinho comes up, Wenger is clever enough not to fall for the trap and is quick to sidestep any controversy, demanding that the assembled press focus on the game and the team – not his infamous rivalry with the former Chelsea boss. He had even threatened to stop a press conference once to put the issue to bed once and for all.
20 years in the Premier League have worn him down. Gone are the days of fiery confrontations on the touchline and kicking water bottles into the stratosphere. The oldest manager in the league simply allows common sense to take over and ensures he does not delve on the friction between the two.
On the other hand, Mourinho laps it all up like a magic elixir that keeps him going. If Wenger sees it as an unnecessary distraction, Mourinho takes pride in hyping up the rivalry while belittling his opponent’s achievements.
“Before a big game like this, it is 'Mourinho v Wenger’,” the Arsenal boss had said. “But it is not that which is most important.”
Is Mourinho deflecting attention away from his squad’s shortcomings?
United are far from the finished product. Ed Woodward may have sanctioned millions to get Mourinho his signings but this United squad is nowhere close to resembling a Mourinho team. While Arsenal may have meekly surrendered the initiative – as they have done in the past at Old Trafford (five from the starting lineup still carry the scars of that 8-2 defeat in 2011) – Mourinho’s side simply failed to wrest that advantage and see it all the way through.
Both teams will come away thinking what went wrong. Mourinho wished he had a taller player such as Marouane Fellaini in the final stages to deny Olivier Giroud a header on goal. Wenger, in spite of his praise for the squad’s never-say-die attitude, will be left scratching his head over the ideal midfield combination.
The attack failed to get enough service in the absence of Santi Cazorla. And why he played Aaron Ramsey on the flank, who drifted in instead of attacking the weak full-backs a la Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, will remain a mystery. For Wenger, it is a point earned from a relatively weak position in a fixture that has historically been his Achilles heel.
For Mourinho, however, it seems like he has finally found his right combination but is still struggling to get results. United have not won two home games in a row since April.
12 matches into the league season and their points tally is worse off than David Moyes’ scarred campaign. And they have much to do to get out of their Europa League group – that is if Mourinho is indeed interested in the competition. He had alluded to the fact that Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte were better prepared to win the league since they did not have the distraction of European nights, even bringing Brendan Rodgers into the mix to highlight the historical precedent of the 2013/14 season.
How much Mourinho plays the role of the antagonist, the anti-establishment renegade who has already been in trouble with the FA this season, is up for debate. If he can fix this squad instead of alienating players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and long-term prospects such as Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling for a multitude of reasons; then he may find his squad more united. Else, he could see things unravel as they did at Chelsea when he targeted and ostracised the team doctor who was simply doing her job.
Which is why he loves holding Wenger up as a punching bag in front of the press. Embellish the truth so he can dwell on his relative moment of triumph while the attention moves away from the shortcomings of his squad. Most managers prefer to talk about their own teams. It is the opposite with Mourinho.
“You're not special anymore,” chanted the away fans at Old Trafford – a sentiment shared by many who now dub him ‘Special Once’. Mourinho can change that opinion if he sets his mind to it. But his nature is to react to any form of hostility – whether it exists in reality or not.
More than a decade ago, Mourinho had labelled Wenger a ‘voyeur’. “He speaks, speaks, speaks about Chelsea,” he had complained back in 2005.
It seems the tables have now turned.