Arsene Wenger has dismissed the suggestion that Pep Guardiola has set new standards in management ahead of tomorrow’s League Cup final that could further cement his own place in British football history.
Victory at Wembley would make Wenger only the eighth manager to complete a clean sweep of major domestic English trophies.
But, even with Arsenal 27 points adrift of Guardiola’s City in the Premier League, he rejects the idea that the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager has changed football.
Guardiola was also the manager of arguably the game’s finest club team at Barcelona and has twice won the Champions League, as well as hat-tricks of league titles in Spain and Germany.
Yet, asked yesterday if the 47-year-old had changed football, Wenger replied: “No. Why?”
Asked if Guardiola had set a new standard over the past decade with his teams and how they played, Wenger chose instead to highlight the concentration of playing talent at the biggest and richest clubs.
“No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe,” said the Frenchman.
Wenger added: “I think you have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a very small number of clubs and we, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy.
“But this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”
It was an instinctive but revealing response that suggested either supreme confidence or perhaps just a tinge of insecurity, even if it was later stressed that Wenger did not intend criticism of Guardiola, who he described as a “good manager”.
Guardiola almost joined Arsenal during Wenger’s tenure back in 2001, but the Frenchman ultimately concluded that he did not need further midfield reinforcement and the 30-year-old instead moved from Barcelona to Brescia.
Did he like Guardiola as a player? “Yes – it was the quality of his decision-making and distribution. He played a very quick passing game and that is always our DNA (but) he was over the top of his career already and we had top-class players in his position.”
With Patrick Vieira then in Arsenal’s midfield, it was a reminder of different times, although it was clear yesterday that Wenger felt the wider perception of his most recent work was sometimes distorted.
Having previously this season described City as a club with “petrol and ideas… that makes it more efficient”, he underlined yesterday just how difficult it was to win trophies.
Wenger’s Arsenal beat City in the FA Cup semi-final last April and went on to win the final against Chelsea.
A fourth trophy in five years tomorrow would ensure the continuation of a record that would mean Arsenal had either finished in the top four or won something in all 22 seasons of Wenger’s tenure.
“Trophies are very difficult to win,” he said. “Look at the big clubs. Liverpool is a big club. How many times have they won the FA Cup in their whole history? Seven.”
Wenger did not elaborate, but was clearly acutely aware that his own all-time record FA Cup tally also stands at seven.
Another landmark could be reached tomorrow. Only Alex Ferguson, George Graham, Joe Mercer, Jose Mourinho, Don Revie, Bill Nicholson and Kenny Dalglish have lifted the League title, FA Cup and League Cup in their managerial careers.
It was obvious yesterday that such records do mean a great deal personally to Wenger.
There is, surely, a certain double standard in those who disparaged top-four finishes and no silverware between 2006 and 2013 but remain so critical amid declining league performance whilst now winning trophies, even if Wenger’s own emphatic criteria always gave priority to the title and Champions League.
The bottom line, also, is that leading players now regard those two competitions as the ultimate benchmark, above even international football outside of major tournaments.
It is why Arsenal would almost certainly trade Champions League qualification – either by finishing in the Premier League’s top four or winning the Europa League – for a victory tomorrow.
That, though, should still not diminish what have been genuinely big performances by Arsenal in the FA Cup last year and even in this year’s League Cup semi-final win against Chelsea. Those matches do also suggest that they have a realistic chance tomorrow, even if Wenger knows that Arsenal are regarded as bigger outsiders than in last year’s Wembley meeting.
“Manchester City is dominating the league in the heads of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs but we have to believe in our quality,” he said.
“The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again.
“In a final, everyone says you have to be motivated, but as well you have to find the right balance between focus, motivation and being relaxed enough to play your game. The advantage of playing many finals is that I know how big a day it is.
“Wembley is always special. The pressure is always immense. You have to be cool. That is the target.”