Those around London Colney can’t help noticing a little lift in Arsene Wenger this week, and it isn’t just down to a good run of results. It’s partly down to a very welcome break in a trend. The Arsenal manager will finally get to prepare for a match against Chelsea with you-know-who being a fringe topic.
This isn’t even like when they met in January, and the Stamford Bridge club were still very much experiencing the aftermath of the Jose Mourinho implosion, so the subject was unavoidable. The discussion, at last, has changed. This is a new opposition regime, a new manager, a new set of circumstances.
The remaining issue, however, is that it’s still the same club – and Wenger’s problems with Chelsea actually precede the Portuguese. They go beyond Mourinho. In fact, they symbolically started in the last match between the two clubs before the former Porto boss was appointed. It just happened to be biggest fixture Arsenal and Chelsea have every played, and undeniably marked the biggest transformation in their undulating rivalry.
That match was their Champions League quarter-final in 2004.
It really is difficult to overstate just how much of a sea-change that meeting 12 years ago marked; only the numbers begin to do it any kind of justice. In the seven and a half years up until that night, Wenger had a supreme record against Chelsea, one that shouldn’t really have been possible between two clubs of such similar resources. He had actually only lost to them twice in 24 games, and both of those were in the League Cup, with the second of them coming in November 1998. That had been followed by almost six years unbeaten against the Blues. Throughout all of this, meanwhile, Arsenal were winning 16 of these fixtures – a remarkable two thirds of them – in every possible manner. They always found a way.
So by the time they were drawn together in the 2003-04 Champions League, Chelsea seemed the perfect, pliable opponents for a side in the pursuit of a treble. Aside from the fact Arsenal enjoyed such an obvious sign over them, this was a season where no domestic rival could defeat the vaunted Invincibles.
It all seemed set up perfectly for Wenger… but the match triggered a seismic shift in the other direction. Wayne Bridge scored a late winner as Chelsea finally beat Arsenal, and Wenger was eliminated from Europe by rivals from just across town during a campaign in which they went unbeaten in England.
It subverted an entire season, and inverted an entire rivalry.
Chelsea haven’t looked back and the symmetry to the numbers is as significant as it is symbolic. That night marked the first of 18 wins in 30 meetings, with Arsenal only inflicting five defeats themselves. Wenger just seemed to lose in all manner of ways, from thrashings to last-minute defeats. They always found a way.
Those defeats even came when Chelsea were enduring one of their semi-regular struggles, with the worst for Arsenal arguably coming in that 2-0 January defeat at the Emirates. It seemed to confirm everything. Even a Chelsea in apparent crisis were capable of beating Arsenal in an apparent title challenge – and wrecking it.
Performance, however, wasn’t the only contrast.
Deepening all of this – and partially explaining it – is that Chelsea have been portrayed and often behaved as the antithesis to Wenger’s Arsenal. It isn’t always correct but those differences have generally fallen along the lines of: external investment against organic growth; pragmatism against purism; short-term against long-term.
Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger with a rare show of emotion – 13/11/2004
The last difference is undeniably true when it comes to management, and it does give Wenger some hope as regards disrupting – and potentially changing – that trend. The reason? Of the French manager’s five wins over Chelsea since 2004, three have come in his first match against another Roman Abramovich appointment. He has often caught them cold, as he did to Avram Grant in 2007, Felipe Scolari in 2008 and Andre Villas-Boas in 2011. He also drew with Roberto Di Matteo in their first meeting. So, put another way, of the few games Arsenal have not lost against Chelsea since 2004, a third have come against new bosses.
Can a meeting with Antonio Conte extend this? Wenger might have had a better chance had Chelsea not so impressively come back against Leicester City in the League Cup to win 4-2, but the way they had to rally after the disappointing defeat by Liverpool still illustrates how unconstructed a team they are. You can see the elements that Conte is trying to put in place, but they haven’t yet fully fused together. There are gaps to exploit.
Arsenal are not yet fully cohesive themselves in terms of performance, but the potential advantage – as with those other wins against new managers they claimed – is the consistency that has marked that last decade. Wenger hasn’t found his best team this season, but he has found a winning rhythm, and they have picked off wins against inferior opposition in the way that has secured so many successive top-four finishes.
The hope now for Arsenal is that this old trait can cause a new departure, another transformation.
For the moment, though, just a win would do.
It would make a change.