26 September 2013

Of Wenger, Mourinho, and Özil: a contrast in styles

Now that we've advanced in the league cup, we'll face Chelsea in round four at the end of October as well as in late December in the Prem. Of course, most of the news out of Stamford Bridge centers around the conflict between José Mourinho and Juan Mata, a carry-over of a recent trend that has seen the manager run down players at
each club he's managed, whether it's Mata at Chelsea, Casillas at Real Madrid, or Balotelli at Inter. It seems almost to be a calling-card or a running joke: how do you know that Mourinho has managed a team? One of its best or brightest has been ground down into dust. Of course, for those players whom he favors, the sun couldn't shine brighter and the birds couldn't sing sweeter. That's all well and good for those favored few, and perhaps it's a useful motivational lever on the rest of the squad. However, the contrast between Mourinho and Wenger couldn't be more stark, as Mourinho has developed a reputation for a certain nomadism and penchant for undermining players to prove a point while Wenger has, for better or worse, now stands apart for his longevity and for his ability to support and develop players into superstars.

Setting aside my own personal, sentimental reasons, I really do hope that we deliver at least three spankings to Mourinho, if not just to progress in the league cup or climb the Prem table [editor: we're top of the table] but to send a message. That message? One can and should build success on a foundation of building players up, not on tearing them down. I'll admit that I have a soft spot for Casillas, and this might bias me a bit against Mourinho. Casillas is easily on the short-list for the world's best keepers, and he seems, by all accounts, to be a class-act as well. To see how his career withered on the vine under Mourinho is therefore an issue for me. For as well as Diego López has done, the fact that he's benefitted from the submarining (sub-mourinho-ing? too much?) of Casillas's career is too much for me to stomach.

To then see the same happen to Juan Mata, who I've heard turns in a tolerably decent shift from time to time, is more than a bit aggravating. Yes, I know that we could've had him a few years back and were even linked to him over the past summer, but that's not what I'm going on about at the moment. Long story short, I can't stand a manager who will undermine a player to prove a point. The lame excuse for Mata's dilemma is that his abilities don't suit Mourinho's preferred tactics. When you have a player of Mata's qualities, why not just explain those tactics and ask him to play to those tactics? I'm sure Mata is more than willing to give it a try. Instead of sussing that out privately between them, Mourinho seems to have opted for publicly undermining the player, apparently to send a message to the rest of the squad that he's in charge, dammit, and that reputations, achievements, or careers matter little if it all.

At the other end of the spectrum then is Arsène Wenger, who has built and staked his name on his ability to find, sign, and develop unheralded players into superstars. Again and again and again, Arsène has proven himself to be a master of actual management—at least as defined in terms of making players and squads better than they might otherwise have been. Given the talent that has surrounded Mourinho at almost every club he's managed, it's hard to assess just how good each squad might have otherwise been without him—how much of a difference, for example, did he make for a Real Madrid squad that features some of the world's best, such as Ronaldo, Casillas, Alonso, and Ramos? By contrast, how well would Arsenal have done without Arsène? With the temporary exceptions of van Persie and Fàbregas, which Gunners could we name as established, world-class players? A select few.

The point here is that, between Mourinho and Arsène, the former gets about as much as you might expect out of a squad, given its talent, and the latter gets a bit more than you might expect—even if that hasn't been quite enough to fully satisfy the Arsenal faithful.

The tie that binds, then, is one Mesut Özil. He was good at Real Madrid, no doubt, but he did so under a manager who seems to insist, nay demand, absolute fealty. As such, all of Özil's gaudy statistics, whether it's key passes or assists or chances created, might actually do the man a disservice, as he was playing within a system not necessarily tailored to his abilities. Put another way, Özil had to play Mourinho's way or get Mourinho-ed. Freed from that strait-jacket, playing in a system and philosophy and under a management style that fosters and encourages, we might actually see a version of Özil that renders the pre-Arsenal Özil absolutely obsolete. That would be exciting to see on two levels: one, it would catapult us towards the top of the Prem; and, two, it would further validate Arsène's philosophy of maximizing the potential of each player.Yes, the name on the front of the shirt matters more than the name on the back, but the two dance a delicate minuet. Under Arsène, we might just see an Özil unchained and free to explore the full range of his skills, and that would be an exciting thing indeed.

By the time these two clubs meet in the league cup's fourth round, we may have a clearer sense of what Mata's role will be. We'll almost certainly have a stronger sense of Özil's contributions to the squad as he'll have four more matches under his belt by the tame we face Chelsea. Despite our rivalry, I respect Mata and would like to see him treated better than this.

Right. I'll walk the line of rooting for Mata while rooting against Mourinho. It's a fine line, no doubt. While I do that, I hope you'll consider voting for this blog in the Football Blogging Awards. Woolwich 1886 has been nominated as a Best New Blog. You can vote via twitter by clicking here or via email by clicking here. I hope I've given you food for thought, at least enough to have earned your support. Thanks, as always, for your visit.