As Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger prepare to renew hostilities this weekend, we take a look at other long-running battles between coaches.
“He is a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football,” snapped Ferguson after Arsenal boss Wenger – whose previous job came with Nagoya Grampus Eight in the Far East – had criticised the Premier League’s decision to extend the season to help United cope with their Champions League demands in 1997. It was the first real flashpoint between two managers who, between them, went on to win the next eight league titles and six of the subsequent nine FA Cup finals.
This rivalry, indeed, was largely prompted by on-field competition. The Premier League was a two-horse race in the late-1990s and early-2000s, and Wenger and Ferguson were the figureheads of their Arsenal and United sides. Perhaps their most memorable clash came in 2003, when Ferguson claimed the Gunners “got away with murder” following a game at Old Trafford which saw Patrick Vieira sent off and Martin Keown, Lauren, Ray Parlour and Ashley Cole goad Ruud van Nistelrooy after he missed a last-minute penalty.
Mourinho and Benitez went head-to-head for the first time in over a decade in November, with the former’s Manchester United side dispatching of the latter’s Newcastle United by four goals to one.
The pair have regularly taken potshots at one another over the years, but this feud was at its fiercest when Mourinho was in charge of Chelsea and Benitez was at the helm of Liverpool in the mid-2000s. The two clubs faced off regularly during that era – not just in the Premier League, but also in the Champions League and domestic cup competitions – with the matches usually tight, tactical affairs between coaches who, deep down, probably felt a begrudging respect for each other.
Not that either would admit it. When Benitez’s wife joked in 2015 that her husband was used to “tidy[ing] up Mourinho’s messes” at former clubs, the Portuguese did not react well. “The lady is a bit confused,” he retorted. “The only club where her husband replaced me was at Inter, where in six months he destroyed the best team in Europe at the time. If she takes care of her husband’s diet she will have less time to speak about me.”
This rivalry had its roots in the Netherlands but was transported to the Premier League when Koeman’s Southampton faced Van Gaal’s Manchester United in 2014/15 and 2015/16. The hostility dates back to the mid-2000s, when the latter blamed the former for forcing him out of Ajax, where he was working alongside manager Koeman as the Dutch club’s technical director.
“He engineered my departure from Ajax,” Van Gaal said in 2006. “With support from within the club and help from the media. I asked him whether he had deliberately used the media and his answer was yes.”
Koeman, though, would argue Van Gaal was undermining his own position in Amsterdam, with stories of Zlatan Ibrahimovic being sold against his wishes and the future United boss monitoring Koeman’s training sessions.
Time has proved something of a healer and there were no major outbursts between the duo in England, where their four meetings ended in two wins apiece.
“A lot of things have been said over the last few days, some of it slanderous. We’ve never commented. We’ve just got on working, trying to pass the ball like we do in training. I think you’ve got to send Alex Ferguson a tape of this game, haven’t you? Isn’t that what he asked for?
“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce… I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something: he went down in my estimations when he said that. We have not resorted to that. You can tell him now, if you’re watching it, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.”
Those were Keegan’s televised words following his Newcastle United team’s battling 1-0 victory over Leeds in April 1996, a result which kept the Magpies in the title hunt. The “them” to whom he was referring, of course, was Manchester United; Keegan took exception to Ferguson’s suggestion that opponents tried harder against his team, and was not shy in letting the world know. Unfortunately for the Newcastle boss, the key takeaway from the interview was that he was just the latest adversary to fall victim to the Scot’s famous mind games.
It is fair to say that the Manchester United and Arsenal managers – who will lock horns on the Emirates Stadium touchline on Saturday evening – have never seen eye to eye. At the heart of this feud appears to be a fundamental difference between how the two men view the game, with Mourinho concerned with winning above all else and Wenger placing greater importance in how football is played. When the Portuguese rails against the “poets” and “philosophers”, it is hard to shake off the suspicion that the Frenchman is foremost in his thoughts.
As if to emphasise the primacy of the result in Mourinho’s mind, clashes between the pair in the Premier League have been rather one-sided: Wenger has only beaten his antagonist once in the top flight, while the self-proclaimed Special One has triumphed on five occasions (there have also been seven draws).
The Manchester United boss labelled the Arsenal coach a “voyeur” and “specialist in failure” during his time in charge of Chelsea, while Wenger has called Mourinho “disrespectful” and “disconnected with reality”.
By Greg Lea
Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.