Arsene Wenger's pioneering spirit leaves a legacy for Jose Mourinho to envy
Goodbye and good riddance? Arsene Wenger may never have to meet Jose Mourinho in a professional capacity again after Arsenal visit Manchester United on Sunday. Given the Portuguese has branded him a "voyeur" and a "specialist in failure", Wenger would have to be a particularly forgiving type to want to meet personally.
As Mourinho has only lost twice in 18 previous meetings -- once in a Community Shield, once when the younger man fielded a weakened side to prioritise the Europa League -- Wenger has few reasons to want a footballing reunion. Mourinho has been his acid-tongued nemesis.
Wenger's time in England can be divided into two periods: before Mourinho's 2004 arrival and after. Wenger won his third league title in 2004; there have been none since. Mourinho's Unbreachables displaced Wenger's Invincibles as champions. His Arsenal side went undefeated in the top flight in the last season before Chelsea brought in the Portuguese; his final Gunners team have been defeated 11 times already. It is an exaggeration to attribute it solely to Mourinho, who has not been a constant in the Premier League for those 14 seasons, but he was, to borrow Ivan Gazidis' phrase, a catalyst for change.
That change was in part stylistic. Mourinho's brand of football became the dominant type in the late Noughties, a cautious counter-attacking ethos being shared by Rafa Benitez and, at times, mimicked by Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho's tactic of fielding three central midfielders, with a specialist holding player, was widely copied; rewind to Wenger's early years and it is notable how much space his players found against 4-4-2 teams in the No. 10 position. Mourinho closed much of it off.
Of course, there is a second argument that football moved on again, Pep Guardiola-esque passing and pressing leaving the Portuguese one step behind the times and the Frenchman two.
Of similar pertinence in 2004 was the shift in finances. Symbolically, Arsenal's newly crowned champions spent about £4 million, while Chelsea's outlay was around £90 million to become champions in Mourinho's initial summer. Wenger was the economist who prospered in a world before petrodollars distorted the footballing landscape, the believer in fiscal prudence who was left complaining about "financial doping".
And yet if there is a case that Mourinho, as much as anyone, has consigned Wenger to the past, there is a case that history will be kinder to the older man -- the history of their time in England, anyhow. Elsewhere, Mourinho's feat in making Porto officially Europe's finest team remains remarkable. He could retain the distinction of being the last Champions League winner from outside the major five domestic leagues. He secured Inter Milan's first Champions League for 45 years and their last for quite some time.
He rebranded Chelsea, from entertaining nearly men to ruthlessly efficient, at times determinedly dull, winners. He left sufficiently deep foundations that he built the team that won in the Champions League in 2012, almost five years after his first sacking. He has as many league titles as and more League Cups than Wenger from a much shorter time in England.
And yet legacy is not dictated by the trophy cabinet alone. Wenger's is apparent in bricks and mortar, in the stadium whose construction he financed in the austerity years. It is not even confined to Arsenal; it is tempting to imagine a world where Wenger had failed at Highbury and was dismissed as a hapless curiosity from overseas, an experiment with a bad idea, a Jozef Venglos for the early Premier League years. Perhaps English football would have reverted to insularity, the legions of foreign managers never employed and the flow of imported talents instead only being a trickle.
He was the pioneer, Mourinho one of the beneficiaries.
Yet if the latter, by signing Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, was a reason why Wenger lost his unique selling position -- a near-monopoly on buying the finest the French league had to offer -- the 68-year-old can boast more genuinely inspirational signings. He bought at a younger age, or a lesser price, or reinvented recruits: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires, Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, Cesc Fabregas and Kolo Toure are all examples of at least one and came in a golden age of recruitment featuring a brilliant brand of football.
Wenger was a revelatory revolutionary, and it if is damning Mourinho with faint praise to merely deem him a hugely effective pragmatist when his influence was also felt across a division, then legacy can be based on intangibles such as memory. Thoughts of Wenger's best Arsenal sides should remain cherished.
And he should keep his distinctions. It is a coincidence that he is bowing out as Mourinho seems set to lose his Premier League points record, of 95, to Guardiola's Manchester City. However, the fact that the 2003-04 Arsenal are still the only English side to complete a league season unbeaten since 1889 indicates the enormity of the feat. Given ever shorter managerial reigns, his tally of seven FA Cups may also stay unequalled. Perhaps longevity, even with the fractious final few years, makes it easier to shape an identity of a club and thus leave an imprint.
The competitor in Mourinho will be all too aware he has won the battles and the war against Wenger. Yet while their philosophical differences -- pragmatism versus idealism -- give them different brands of greatness, Wenger's enduring appeal to the romantics may give him the more enviable legacy.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.