Wenger, Mourinho falling behind group of younger managers led by Conte
These are dark days for Arsene Wenger. The end of days, maybe, even though he stays defiant. There might at least be comfort in looking down the league table on Jose Mourinho, his oldest foe.
But that will still be cold comfort. Two giants of the Premier League era are having to stare up at the new school, four younger managers usurping their previous territory. Manchester United have been landlocked in sixth since September, and Arsenal dropped to fifth after losing 3-1 at Liverpool last weekend.
The 2016-17 season was trailed as the world's best coaches congregating in England. Pep Guardiola was leading man, finally making Manchester City sexy, while Antonio Conte had impressed with a limited Italy squad at Euro 2016, and masterminded Juventus' return to ruling Serie A.
They would join Jurgen Klopp, nearing messianic status as Liverpool manager -- having previously broken the dominance of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund -- and Tottenham Hotspur's Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine's four years in the Premier League have graduated him from unknown quantity at Southampton to making Spurs a persistent force for the first time in decades.
Conte has led the way, with Chelsea 10 points clear and blazing to the title with a dominance that brings back memories of Mourinho's 2004-05 and 2005-06 Premier League peaks. Pochettino's Spurs are the wage-bill busters, sixth in terms of expenditure but in second place; a triumph of youth development and careful squad management level on points with Guardiola's expensive work in progress.
The Catalan has found English football hard, but signs for the future are largely positive. A forward line of Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, defending from the front and attacking at quicksilver speed, may be irresistible once Jesus recovers from injury. Klopp's Liverpool are in fourth, having stumbled since the turn of 2017, but boast an excellent record against the rest of the top six, having not lost to any of them, with Arsenal having been beaten home and away (4-3 and 3-1) and United clinging on for two draws (0-0 at Anfield, 1-1 at Old Trafford).
Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013 gave both Wenger and Mourinho a chance to replace him as the Premier League's overlord but their own time might well be limited, neither having grasped the nettle. Mourinho won a title with Chelsea in 2014-15 before being unceremoniously sacked, and is now in Ferguson's seat at Old Trafford. Despite winning the EFL Cup last month and leading United on a lengthy unbeaten league run since October, he is still in the long shadow of the man the stand opposite his dugout is named after.
The last time Ferguson finished as low as sixth was the 1990-91 season, when United also lifted the old European Cup Winners' Cup, and perhaps only the winning of a European trophy, the Europa League, can rescue United's season from being a disappointment, despite the hopeful noises of regeneration being made by the club's officials and most red-eyed fans.
Mourinho's team play attacking football, much easier on the eye that the narcoleptic fare served up by Louis van Gaal, but cannot score enough goals. A coach whose greatest successes -- with Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan -- were built on keeping the defence tight has previously left his forwards to get on with an art he finds mysterious.
The idea that Mourinho is sifting the wreckage of the post-Ferguson era pervades, despite a summer outlay of £153 million. There lingers a novelty to Mourinho at United that is many years, decades even, behind Wenger. Losing 5-1 and 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich felt the end of the affair for the Arsenal manager, yet he fights on. In the midst of the hysteria from fans and the media, his stubbornness is to be admired, especially when the merciful release of retirement would surely grant him a deserved legend status.
After Tuesday marked probably the lowest ebb of approaching 21 years in charge, Wenger reduced himself to using the Mourinho playbook. On Thursday, he chose to view Barcelona's earth-shattering comeback against PSG through the prism of his own team's humiliation.
"Last night's fightback has shown the importance of two main factors of this kind of games, it's the referee and very big players," he said, sticking to his hopelessly skewed view that it was Laurent Koscielny's sending-off at the Emirates that lost Arsenal the tie, and not the 5-1 lead Bayern arrived in London with. That he cannot call on many big players, with his current best, Alexis Sanchez, seemingly headed for the exit, was another inconvenient truth he failed to address.
Catching the new breed looks beyond Wenger, who is running out of time and excuses. Even Mourinho might have sympathy for that.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.