This Saturday sees Chelsea host Arsenal in a crucial game at the top of the Premier League table. It will also be Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge of the Gunners.
It’s an unbelievable achievement in this day and age to reach 1,000 games with one club. It’s hard to put into words—at least in any way that does justice to the man—but I think he has changed a lot in English football.
He was probably one of the first managers to bring foreign players over in significant numbers to the Premier League. Part of his huge success, especially over the early part of his tenure, was that influx—as some were truly outstanding players.
For me, the most exciting team in Premier League history was the Arsenal team with Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Factor in that remarkable defence, and for me it was the best Premier League team of the last 15 or 20 years.
I would not say that Wenger has had more of an impact on the Premier League and English football than Sir Alex Ferguson, but he has certainly made his mark in a different way. You cannot ever take anything away from what Ferguson achieved during his time at Manchester United, but Wenger has done things differently in North London, working under different constraints.
Obviously Arsenal never quite had the same resources, because they did not have the stadium like Manchester United (although that has changed recently). In light of that, he always took care of the financial side of things with guile and consideration.
That is a huge part of why the club is in such a healthy position right now. But it is results on the pitch that have ultimately enabled him to stay in the job for as long as he has.
An element of that is his demeanour. If you scream and rant at players you might get a reaction in the short term, but in the long term you have to treat players like adults and show them respect if you want to get the best out of them. I think that is what Wenger has always done, both with his players and the press.
He has very rarely had an outburst or lost his cool with the media, and the players and fans like that, I think.
You don’t necessarily have to be mild mannered, but you have to keep yourself under control. I think if you want to have longevity at one club in the modern game, you need to be able to do that.
In many ways his style is in direct contrast to his opponent on Saturday, Jose Mourinho, who has never really stayed at one club for very long. Mourinho always has something to say to the press, is always ready with a sound bite or opinion that creates headlines.
It is often said it is “mind games,” but in reality Mourinho's approach is just for the press half the time and probably for the fans the other half—just to bring expectations or anticipation down a bit.
Sometimes that is necessary, because the fans keep expecting you to win games—even to win games three- or four-nil when the likes of a Norwich or a Hull come to town. And then you get a big game like the Champions League meeting with Galatasaray in midweek, which was never likely to be straightforward.
But then Chelsea played them off the park and progressed, and suddenly the expectations go up another notch.
I think managing expectations is one of the key things for coaches these days, and Mourinho does it well. But as a player, you do not get involved or notice—most of the time you don’t read about expectations or are even aware of coaches' comments, and they have no impact whatsoever on the team. Players are concentrating solely on what they are doing.
What is more important is what the manager says to them in private. Ultimately the manager will say one thing to the press but something else entirely to his players in the dressing room.
Chelsea are not necessarily firing on all cylinders at the moment. However, they are very professional and efficient and are getting the results they need. I think their mentality is probably as good as anyone’s in the league, and they know exactly what it takes to get a result.
On the other hand, in Arsenal you have a team that, alongside Liverpool, is probably the prettiest to watch in the country.
Unfortunately they currently have a few players out, which I think sooner or later could take them out of the title race. In Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott they have two major players missing. Ramsey might be back at some stage, but I worry they just don’t quite have the strength in depth to compensate for those losses over the remainder of the run-in.
Then again, Chelsea are not invincible, as last weekend’s surprise defeat to Aston Villa showed. When they have been winning, it has usually been 1-0 or 2-0; they have often only needed to score one or two goals to win games because they aren’t conceding many at the back.
They seem to have found a solid defensive partnership in John Terry and Gary Cahill, but there remains that grain of doubt. I can see Arsenal getting something from Stamford Bridge.
Everything becomes magnified because this is a game that could have a real impact on the title race. Mourinho and Wenger have had things to say in the build-up, but the players have to prepare the same as they would for any other game—the same as if they are going to Sunderland, for example.
In these games you have to keep a cool head and not let the fact it is a derby, or a title encounter, get into your mind.
You have to have the same routine and same preparations, because the last thing you want to do is get too excited and make a tackle or a challenge that you should not make and change the course of the game with a mistake.
You have to approach it the same and forget there is obviously a lot more at stake than usual.
But most top players will be motivated by that and, obviously, for Arsenal and Chelsea, they are all top-class players. All of the players involved will have been in a position like this before, where they were playing in a semi-final, final or a vital league match, so I’m sure they will not be affected too much.
Sometimes when an unexpected or unusual team gets in that sort of position it can have an impact, but these teams—even though Arsenal have not really been in the mix like this for a long time—all have international players and will all know what is required.
Mourinho and Wenger might make headlines with their comments, but it is the players who will decide matters on the pitch.