How Chelsea destroyed the Wenger aura

Photo: Ronnie Macdonald via Flickr CC BY 2.0

AS the two London giants prepare to meet in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup, we look at why Chelsea have been the source of so much angst at Arsenal.

There’s no love lost between Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Chelsea – he’s been critical of the culture of the West London club down the years and successive managers of the Blues have been a thorn in the Frenchman’s side since 2003-04 when Roman Abramovich flew into Fulham Road.

Wenger and Abramovich, along with Eric Cantona, are arguably the most influential foreigners when it comes to the Premier League, all for very different reasons. Cantona was the catalyst for the resurgence of Manchester United, a club that had hankered for its glory days, but had been through a succession of managers who found the anvil of expectation overbearing.

Wenger brought a whole new ethos to English football and Abramovich triggered the march of the billionaires as club owners. English football has had other hired hands from abroad, but the impact of this trio probably helped reinvent the game we know today.

Wenger’s future is a topic of daily debate: among Arsenal fans, football pundits and journalists, and doubtless, among players themselves. With every setback, the “Wenger out” placards come into view once more and with each bad result, more people defect to the “out” camp. Almost weekly, the reputation of the scholarly and increasingly fractious Gunners’ talisman, gets tarnished just a little bit more. People are, quite simply, bored with the Wenger way, a method that has been overtaken by money and new ideas.

Wenger has never been over-gracious in defeat and often begrudges success at any other club.  In football, it’s rare to tip your hat in the direction of somebody who is more successful than you – green-eyes are very much de rigueur in the professional game. Wenger always speaks out on anything that disadvantages his own club – as any good clubman would – but he also forgets that his own club have, historically, had benefits many other clubs have coveted.

The takeover of Chelsea in 2003 came as Wenger was at his peak and Arsenal’s superiority at the time – two titles since 1998 and two doubles – had pushed Chelsea into a supporting role. They had enjoyed a run of success from 1997 to 2000, but had won nothing for a while. The Blues’ revival under Ken Bates seemed to have exhausted itself and indeed, the club was treading choppy financial water. Bates sold to Abramovich, who was then relatively unknown, in 2003. Arsenal, who had lost their 2002 title by five points to Manchester United, embarked on an unbeaten campaign in 2003-04 and assumed the “invincible” tag originally given to Preston North End in 1889.

Financial parity?

Chelsea, in 2003-04, finished runners-up, some 11 points behind Wenger’s team. It should be recalled, however, that even in 2003, before Abramovich’s takeover, Chelsea were generating more income than Arsenal. In 2002, when Arsenal won the double, Chelsea featured higher than the Gunners in Deloitte’s Football Money League, but in 2003, with Arsenal enjoying Champions League revenues, the pendulum had swung to North London. On a revenue basis, Arsenal are still capable of earning more money than Chelsea – in 2016-17, Arsenal generated £488m to Chelsea’s £ 428m – but in the transfer market, Abramovich’s wealth and appetite gives his club the edge over Arsenal.

Indeed, when the Russian oligarch started to flex his wallet in the transfer market, it came as Arsenal were retrenching and focusing their efforts on their new stadium. The timing could not have been worse for Wenger, who was still cast in the role of the great innovator. Arsenal shareholder, Alishi Usmanov, has since commented that the move to the Emirates Stadium robbed Wenger of his best years.

There’s little doubt that Chelsea’s new-found wealth made Arsenal feel uncomfortable. As far back as December 2003, Chelsea tried to sign Thierry Henry, tabling an audacious £40m bid. David Dein, then Arsenal’s chairman, commented that, “Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.” The Henry attempt came just a few months after Chelsea had tried to lure Patrick Vieira to Stamford Bridge. In 2003-04, Chelsea spent a total of £120m on new players and in the following three campaigns, their transfer fund totalled over £ 200m. By contrast, Arsenal barely spent £50m over the four seasons. At the same time, Chelsea’s revenues in 2007 totalled £ 190m to Arsenal’s £178m.

If there is a defining moment in that 2003-04 season, however, it involves the meeting of the two clubs in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Chelsea were certainly not favourites to overcome Arsenal after drawing the first leg 1-1 at home. The second game, at Highbury, saw José Antonio Reyes give Arsenal the lead, but goals from Frank Lampard and Wayne Bridge sent Claudio Rainieri’s team through to face Monaco in the semi-final.

History rewritten

Chelsea made a mess of that tie when they were in a commanding position, and they lost 3-1 in the principality. Rainieri’s tactics and Chelsea capitulation – they drew the second leg 2-2 at home – rubber-stamped the departure of the popular Italian. It also sent Monaco to the final to face Porto, then managed by an up-and-coming manager by the name of José Mourinho. Porto won comfortably 3-0, which made both Arsenal and Chelsea ponder about what might have been. Nevertheless, the quarter-final tie had shown that Abramovich’s Chelsea had arrived.

Certainly, Arsenal of 2003-04 would have been a sterner test for Porto and it is not mere fancy to suggest that Wenger’s team might have won the Champions League, which may also have rewritten history. Would Chelsea have hired Mourinho in 2004 had he not won the competition? And what would Arsenal have gone on to achieve had Wenger been triumphant in the final against Porto?

But with Mourinho installed, proclaiming his “special one” status, and another truckload of new signings in 2004-05 – this time, the quality appeared to be a step-up with names like Didier Drogba (Marseille) and Petr Cech (Rennes) joining the show – Arsenal now had a contender close by. The gains made by being first-movers in a new approach advocated by Wenger were being lost. Wenger had farmed his home country’s talent market, Vieira, Henry, Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka and Sylvan Wiltord had all made a significant impact at Arsenal, but Chelsea had also directed their scouting across the Channel and their financial clout posed a real threat.

It goes without saying that Wenger and Mourinho were never going to be bosom pals. Wenger, back in 2004, was a deeply-respected figure, while the latter’s arrogance and indifference would soon become apparent. Chalk and cheese, as they say. But they were immediately cast as rivals, with “new money” Chelsea trying to take Arsenal’s crown away. Wenger was very open early on that he did not like what was happening a few miles across London: “Chelsea will, sooner or later, take who they want.” One wonders how it would have been if Chelsea were in fact Everton or Aston Villa rather than a London neighbour. Would Wenger have been so anxious?

It wasn’t long before everyone realised the game had changed, perhaps forever. When Chelsea won the league, their financial strength was seen as the start of a long period of dominance. Wenger said that if Chelsea did not win the title again in 2006, it would be a disaster for them. “I feel they are a financially doped club. They have enhancement of performance through financial resources which are unlimited. For me, it’s a kind of doping because it’s not in any way linked to their resources. It puts pressure on the market that is not very healthy. They can go to [Steven] Gerrard and [Rio] Ferdinand and say ‘how much do you earn, we’ll give you twice as much’.”

Wenger was not a fan of the Mourinho style, comparing it to a matador wearing-down the strength of a bull before going for the kill. By Mourinho’s second season, the spat between the two was gathering momentum. Mourinho, sensing Wenger’s apparent obsession with Chelsea, referred to him as a “voyeur” and claimed he had a 120-page dossier on the insults and comments that Wenger had made about Chelsea! Some years later, with the Emirates trophy cabinet bare, Mourinho called Wenger a “specialist in failure”.

Arsenal moved into their Emirates home in 2006 and Mourinho’s first stint as manager of Chelsea came to an end in 2007. Such is the nature of Chelsea’s success-at-all-costs approach, Wenger has never had much time to build-up resentment with any other manager at the club. But that hasn’t stopped the stream of comments about Chelsea.


In 2010, Wenger claimed that Arsenal’s wage bill was way behind Chelsea’s own staff expenses, which were “not normal”.

He added that wage bills like Chelsea’s should not be allowed, even though football had long since become a free market economy of its own. He also suggested Chelsea were hypocritical after Abramovich had publicly supported Financial Fair Play but then spent £75m on Fernando Torres and David Luiz after the club had posted a similar-sized loss.

Being “allowed” or not, Wenger had more than one “doped” club to deal with after Manchester City became the latest club to receive huge amounts of cash. In fact, City became more of a potent threat to Arsenal in that they repeatedly raided North London for talent – signing Adebayor, Toure, Clichy and Nasri in a short space of time.

Similar to his assessment of Chelsea, the rise of Manchester City has drawn veiled criticism from Wenger. In December 2017, with City being compared to Arsenal’s team of 2004, he referred to their backing from the Middle East rather sneeringly: “We had no petrol but ideas, they have petrol and ideas.” Interestingly, and bearing in mind Wenger’s interest in wage bills, Arsenal’s costs for 2015-16 were only £3m lower than City’s wages.

Today, the gap between Arsenal and Chelsea’s wage bill is only the equivalent of a major signing. A big wage bill does not necessarily mean the money is spent wisely. The difference between a £50m player and a £30m player is not always that telling when it comes to winning points. What is key is the management of those players and the way they blend as a team.

Chelsea have had a dozen or so managers in the time that Wenger has been in charge at Arsenal. Not all have been successful, and they have made a few mistakes – Grant, Scolari and AVB – but when the person in charge has been pragmatic and ruthless, such as Mourinho, Conte and Ancelotti, they have been successful. Constant change has kept Chelsea among the honours, because they ialmost always get the best out of a manager before he moves on, compensated and signature still damp on that non-disclosure agreement.

Wenger is an idealist, he undoubtedly believes in organic growth being the best way to be successful in football. But, rightly or wrongly, the game is all about immediacy, about results, about generating money and about winning. And if modern football is about organic growth and established status, rather than seeking and leveraging investment, then Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool would still be winning trophies every year. A club’s strength today is as much about the power of its owner as it is about heritage, size of support and commercial prowess.

A new industry

The new paradigm, spearheaded by Chelsea and Manchester City plays to the current structure of European football. It is no longer enough to be successful in your own backyard and clubs like Chelsea consider their rivals and peers to be Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid as well as their domestic opponents.

Not everyone likes it, but it’s a fact and until something changes – such as TV money evaporating, financial crisis or geo-political events – the new model is likely to remain and become even more all-consuming.

Where does that leave Wenger and Arsenal? Nothing lasts forever, so Wenger will surely move on, perhaps with a trophy in his hand. It needs to happen sooner rather than later, for they are slipping away, something which cannot be allowed to continue for too long in the current business climate of top level football.

And Chelsea? They are in mid-cycle if recent history tells us anything. Antonio Conte arrived in 2016, won the title and is now in the discontent phase, perhaps a year ahead of the normal routine in London SW6. He too may be packing his bags in the summer, although Chelsea could still end the season with trophies. But it’s not a big drama, for the pattern has become quite established and almost 15 years after Abramovich landed in Britain, Chelsea have become one of the European elite. Doped or not, the project has proved to have legs and in the period between 2004 and 2018, a whole new global and inter-connected industry has been created. You’re either in the club, or looking in from the outside. Are Arsenal waiting for the manager that will get their foot back in the door?


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