They may be both found in the stands at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, arguably the two foreigners who made the biggest mark on the Premier League. Roman Abramovich will presumably be in his executive box. Arsene Wenger is definitely banished from the touchline. He, too, should occupy the posh seats.
Arsene Wenger in the stands
Image credit: Reuters
The manager who rails against “financial doping” and the owner who has practised it are opposites, separated by the capital divide and a philosophical gulf. Abramovich appears Wenger’s nemesis. The eventual reckoning may be that it began to go wrong for the Frenchman even as he compiled his definitive achievement. Because while the Russian’s 2003 buyout preceded the campaign when Arsenal became the first English club for 115 years to complete a league season unbeaten, such feats were condemned to history when the Abramovich effect took hold. Arsenal had been Invincibles. Then they were in the chasing pack.
Now Chelsea are on course to win their fifth league title since 2004. They have a Champions League, a Europa League, four FA Cups and three League Cups in that time. Arsenal’s meagre haul in that time consists of three FA Cups. The Chelsea approach – change managers regularly, spend heavily on players and, increasingly, buy large numbers who they loan out in a unique business – runs contrary to Wenger’s beliefs.
Their style of football differs from his. Abramovich may envy sides with greater aesthetic appeal but Chelsea have been defined by pragmatism and ruthlessness, by the wrecking-ball target men opponents love to hate, in Didier Drogba and Diego Costa, and the ultra-efficient Frank Lampard. Wenger has seemed the purist whose commitment to prettiness has delivered too few prizes.
Chelsea's Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba (R) celebrates scoring a goal with English defender John Terry (C) and English midfielder Frank Lampard (L)
Image credit: AFP
The shift in styles of play was an indirect consequence of Abramovich’s arrival; his impatient brand of ownership necessitates winning at all costs. England’s 2004 imports, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, brought a new emphasis, tactically-obsessed counter-attackers looking to keep men behind the ball. The Portuguese, in particular, seemed to take solace in the size and physicality of some of his players at a time when Wenger started to favour small technicians. Even as Barcelona pursued a similar policy, he seemed out of step with his immediate rivals just as, while he has a speedy side now, Arsenal are not bracketed with pressing evangelists who have redefined football now. He often seems a man slightly out of time, not completely distanced, yet not quite at the cutting edge anymore.
His other nemesis, Sir Alex Ferguson, adapted quicker to the changing times. The Scot’s commitment to winning superseded all else, whereas Wenger’s intransigence may have held Arsenal back at times. Aided perhaps by Carlos Queiroz’s tactical input, Manchester United bore more similarities to Mourinho’s Chelsea and Benitez’s Liverpool than Arsenal did. Ferguson was able to win league titles once Abramovich’s influence took hold. Wenger was not. Yet it is also pertinent that United’s era of austerity only began in 2009; Wenger’s started earlier.
His fiscal planning, the Wengernomic model of challenging on the cheap while financing a new ground, was blown out of the water by first Abramovich and later Sheikh Mansour; aims were reduced to annual Champions League qualification. English football was no longer a dominant duopoly of Arsenal and United. Abramovich was the pioneer as the billionaires bought in. Wenger was the revolutionary who found himself fighting to preserve the ancien regime in the face of acquisitive, lavishly-funded modernity.
Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.
That was what David Dein famously said after Chelsea tried to buy Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. They tapped up, and then signed, Ashley Cole, laying the groundwork for the time when Arsenal appeared Manchester City’s feeder club. They raided Wenger’s beloved French market, raising the prices by paying exorbitant fees for Drogba and Michael Essien and, in the process, helping to take away the Arsenal manager’s USP, his ability to find high-class players for bargain prices in his homeland.
Vieira - Pires - Henry - Cole (Arsenal)
Image credit: AFP
Yet among the most telling moment came from one of the first influx of Abramovich buys, the scattergun signings of 2003. Arsenal would reach a Champions League final two years later, but 2004 was probably the only year when they were genuinely the best team in Europe. “This year we deserved to win the Champions League,” Jens Lehmann told Amy Lawrence in Invincible. They seemed set to conquer the continent before Wayne Bridge’s late quarter-final winner at Highbury.
Instead of Wenger, the 2004 Champions League winner was a brash arriviste. Mourinho was soon Chelsea manager. But for Bridge, history may have been very different at both clubs. There is a temptation to think of this as a one-sided rivalry. It certainly was in 2004 when Arsenal were unbeaten in 19 games against Chelsea, winning 12, before Bridge struck.
These days Chelsea have only lost three in 19. Even then, some of those defeats have been cases of short-term pain leading to long-term gain. The surreal 5-3 in 2011 highlighted that Andre Villas-Boas’ high defensive line and Chelsea did not go together: they ended that season winning the Champions League under Roberto Di Matteo. The 3-0 evisceration in September convinced Antonio Conte to ditch Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1. He changed to 3-4-2-1 after 55 minutes. His heaviest loss could prove to be the game that wins the title for Chelsea.
Arsenal’s rare victories have served to highlight flaws in the Chelsea make-up that need to be addressed. Chelsea’s many wins tend to illustrate the shortcomings, whether in mental strength, defensive resolve or tactics, that prevent Arsenal from becoming champions again. They are the club who ruined Wenger’s 1000th game in charge by thrashing him 6-0. They have unleashed Drogba and Costa, twin tormentors of Arsenal. They have changed English football, changed Wenger’s career and changed perceptions of him. Perhaps, if it was not for Abramovich, it would have been someone else, somewhere else. But perhaps, had he not come along, Wenger would still reign supreme. And that alternative, Abramovich-free, version of events would have been preferable to the Premier League’s previous transformative import.