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3 December 2015

Mourinho the tactician and Wenger the educator – both are perfectionists, just different kinds

When Mourinho described Wenger as “a specialist in failure”, it was not cruelly accurate but sadly false. It showed the limitations of Mourinho’s world-view.

By Ed Smith

Naivety is usually considered a disastrous quality in a leader. Impatient ruthlessness, the feint to the media, the knowing wink: Machiavellianism dominates conventional wisdom about how winners operate. Too much so. Naivety is underrated, especially as an influence over long-term success.

“Make this the greatest football club in the world within 100 years” – that was the message given to Arsène Wenger by the chairman of the Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight when the Frenchman became its manager in 1995. “That negates the pressure of immediacy in a fabulous way,” Wenger reflected recently in a fascinating interview in L’Équipe.

Arsenal fans may wonder if the 100-year coaching term lodged permanently in Wenger’s mind. He has now been manager of Arsenal for more than 7,000 days, longer than all current Premier League managers put together. The League titles have dried up, yet the body of achievement grows.

Wenger’s naivety can hurt him and Arsenal. His lack of tactical savvy costs games, especially when he refuses to substitute underperforming players. Concerns about their long-term self-esteem blind him to the danger on the left flank right now. Wenger is not ruthless. Players seem not to fear his vengeance. He appears coolly rational but suffers from a surfeit of forgiveness, lacking Graham Greene’s “chip of ice” in his heart.

This makes him frustrating. But Wenger’s naivety also drives his long-term success. His players do not burn out from psychological duress (a common explanation of José Mourinho’s short stints in charge of clubs: the players can’t take it any more). Real teachers are always optimists and Wenger’s central interest, improving his players, does not pall or weary.

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He is often described as a “developmental manager”, as though that quality leads him to be a limited and indulgent tactician. We might reverse the causality: being a tolerant, light-touch tactician sustains his gift as a long-term educator. To expect more of people and risk being let down can be an ­effective style of long-range leadership.

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I am not such a Wengerite, however, that I have derived pleasure from the abject performances this season of his nemesis, José Mourinho, at Chelsea. Conventional wisdom is as wrong about Mourinho as Mourinho is about Wenger. Because he is highly intelligent and magnetically charismatic, Mourinho is assumed to be a perfect Machiavel, manipulating his reputation through the media. It isn’t true. He is too passionate and emotional to be properly Machiavellian. Mourinho is tactically controlling – unlike Wenger, who strives to set his team free – but surprisingly indifferent to perceptions.

Mourinho and Wenger are opposite kinds of perfectionists. One is an educational perfectionist, who wants to make his players the Platonic ideal of themselves; the other is a strategic perfectionist, who finds tactical blunders almost intolerable. In assuming that Mourinho always has a plan, we miss the real narrative: he makes mistakes and finds mistakes hard to admit to. I have no doubt that Mourinho is the better match-day manager – knowledge achieved the hard way by watching countless Arsenal defeats against Chelsea. But is Mourinho a better manager overall? That’s a harder question.

The experience of watching sport, like that of reading a book, can be downgraded retrospectively. Looking back, it is possible to feel, if not exactly tricked, then sceptical about the emotions we imagined during it. The passing of time enhances some sporting ­experiences and diminishes others.

How will Wenger be remembered? We will look back on a stubborn idealist with huge blind spots (central defenders, goalkeepers, defensive midfielders, and so on). But I predict that the experience of ­following Wenger’s Arsenal will take on even more depth and value in retrospect.

What is success in sport? Matches won, titles acquired, cabinets stocked? That’s true but only up to a point. The rival view, holding that sport is entertainment, is also highly incomplete: if you want only to entertain, you are a clown not a sportsman; if you seek beauty alone, you are a dancer. The ultimate trick is holding the two values – victory and entertainment – in perfect equipoise.

The greatest champions are alive to the additional expectations of entertainment without allowing it to interfere. Those players (and teams) are open to the way that sport is about more than winning without becoming significantly less likely to win. The crowd understands this: fans do not crave indulgence, like a child needing to be tickled, but respect. That bond between players and spectators, however, must stay one step removed from the task at hand.

In its highest form, sport is never less than entertaining but always more than entertainment. And that has been central to the experience of following Arsenal these past 19 years. Forget style and finesse for a moment. The real joy has been justified hope, the sense of having a chance – even if the hope does not materialise. It is adolescent to believe that winning is the only pleasure in sport. If I lose myself in a match, following the narrative surprises all the way to the final whistle, surely I have had a successful experience?

That has been Wenger’s gift, given to Arsenal and to English football for nearly two decades. When Mourinho described Wenger as “a specialist in failure”, it was not cruelly accurate but sadly false. It showed the limitations of Mourinho’s world-view.

I have enough reverence for talent and achievement to expect Mourinho to prove his critics wrong. But, over the long term, don’t bet against Wenger having the last laugh. Naive hopefulness is strangely enduring. I hope, however, that it doesn’t take 100 years for Wenger to be proved right. 

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State