Meeting of old enemies
Fear and loathing between both managers make this an enticing contest
MAN UNITED v ARSENAL
(Tonight, 8.25pm, Singtel TV Ch 103 & StarHub TV Ch 228 - Eleven Plus HD)
Elite sport must be defined by conflict and Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho are its finest examples.
Their relationship is consumed with fear and loathing.
Coaches often argue, but this is different. It's darker and deeper. This isn't a longstanding war of words, but a war of ideals.
When Arsenal visit Manchester United tonight, the meeting will not just resurrect an old conflict between two clubs, but underline a battle between managers with very different values.
Wenger and Mourinho may not hate each other, but they certainly loathe what the other manager represents.
In Mourinho, Wenger sees the grubby embodiment of all that has gone wrong with the modern game.
He sees Guy Fawkes with a chequebook, a myopic manager happy to see the world burn as long as he profits along the way.
Youth academies, the state of the national game and the Premier League's reputation on the global stage are of no interest to Mourinho. His eyes are always on the immediate prize.
Master plans are for civil servants or foolish idealists like Wenger. Mourinho lives in the here and now. Tomorrow may perish as long as he thrives today.
As far as Wenger is concerned, the end of the principled game coincided with the beginning of Mourinho.
The Portuguese egotist arrived at Chelsea, threw Roman Abramovich's roubles at salivating players and killed off any sense of fair play.
And Mourinho was very good at it. No, he was exceptional at it.
And Wenger hated him for it.
For the next decade, Mourinho laughed all the way to the bank and the trophy cabinet. Most of all, he laughed at the old man in the Arsenal dugout.
In Wenger, Mourinho sees a dinosaur in Dad jeans, a relic from a naive age of innocence.
Promoting kids from the academy, refusing to break the bank in the transfer marker and adhering to a strict salary structure were archaic traditions that only made Wenger a "specialist in failure".
But Wenger retained a certain level of respect that has always just eluded Mourinho, the kind of cap-doffing admiration usually reserved for a popular professor at college.
Wenger's strategies didn't always work. In truth, they often failed miserably. But that gentle respect for a proud man of unswerving principles mostly remained.
And Mourinho hated him for it.
So he did what he'd always done with his enemies. He beat Wenger, repeatedly. He pulverised him, ridiculed him and humiliated him at every opportunity.
In March 2014, Mourinho celebrated Wenger's 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal by motivating Chelsea to beat the Gunners 6-0.
Wenger still hasn't beaten a Mourinho side in 13 competitive meetings.
And Mourinho has revelled in every one of those victories. They vindicated his short-term, bulk-buying, siege mentality approach to management.
Wenger had his principles. Mourinho had his silver pots, lots of them.
He who laughed last had the longest resume.
But Mourinho isn't really laughing any more. Something unfunny happened on the way to Old Trafford.
Mourinho started to turn into Wenger.
With each tepid United performance, using the same tired tactics and the same kind of physicality in a league of swift counter-surging, Mourinho began to resemble the dinosaur in the Dad jeans.
He even sounded like a grumpy old man, moaning about everything from Luke Shaw and Chris Smalling's alleged lack of courage to his lonely nights in a hotel suite.
And every side from Fenerbache to Burnley were finding ways to contain United.
At a time when the world was obsessed with building walls, Mourinho's was being demolished. Chelsea found the net four times against United, each goal a dagger through a Portuguese heart that once bled blue.
The bus had broken down.
Meanwhile, Wenger now swaggers around London town like an old man reborn.
That stuffy professor has swapped the tweed jacket for a teenager's T-shirt and everyone suddenly finds him attractive and relevant again.
A win at Old Trafford would lift Arsenal to the top of the table, albeit briefly, to thoroughly underscore the Wenger renaissance.
The thought of victory against a manager he has never previously beaten in a competitive fixture - much less liked - must be keeping the Frenchman awake at night.
Mourinho is already suffering from sleepless nights.
He can't settle in Manchester without his family.
He can't settle at Old Trafford without his Midas touch.
But the enemy at the gates often brings out the best in Mourinho.
Like a cornered dog, he bites back when he feels threatened, angry or nauseous.
Only Wenger makes him feel all three.
Their relationship remains toxic, volatile and utterly captivating. The rest of us can only sit back and wait for the glorious fireworks.
"You know, we didn’t lose always... I think I have won against every manager in the world during my 20 years here and I do not make of this game a competition between two managers."
— Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on his record against a side led by Jose Mourinho, whom he has yet to beat in 13 competitive meetings
BY THE NUMBERS
Arsene Wenger's only win in 15 previous encounters as a manager in any competition against Jose Mourinho came in last season's Community Shield, when Arsenal beat Chelsea 1-0.
- Man United v Arsenal (8.30pm)
- Crystal Palace v Man City (11pm)
- Everton v Swansea (11pm)
- Southampton v Liverpool (11pm)
- Stoke City v Bournemouth (11pm)
- Sunderland v Hull City (11pm)
- Watford v Leicester (11pm)
- Tottenham v West Ham (1.30am)
- Boro v Chelsea (11.55pm)
- West Brom v Burnley (4am)