Monday, August 03, 2015

School's out for summer (unless you're Arsène or José...)

It's Monday, August 3. Paris is empty. I mean, I Am Legend empty. That said, if there has been a cataclysmic event, it has forced all survivors underground, as the Métro was still standing room only this morning.

School is out for summer. Northern Europe is migrating south like starlings in November, the budget airlines' Airbuses and Boeings, not to mention the roof boxes of Volvos, are bulging with holidaymakers and their holidaymaking paraphernalia.

And yet, despite being just three days into what should be the annual non-month, we football fans have the semi-cooked meat of yesterday's Charity Shield encounter between Arsenal and Chelsea to masticate on.

Since the end of May, or was it June, or perhaps July, when last season's hostilities came to a close, the tragically addicted amongst us have had to make do with the Women's World Cup and friendlies played at two in the morning in far off and half empty stadia. Don't get me wrong, the Women's World Cup gave the women's game a huge boost - just look at the media coverage of last Saturday's FA Women's Cup Final at Wembley. But it just isn't the same as what we had yesterday at the very same stadium, when the puffed-up FA Cup winners, Arsenal, strode out to face José Mourinho's 2014-15 Premier League champions.

But let's fast-forward to about twenty minutes after the final whistle. Let's gloss over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's single, classy goal that ultimately divided the two teams; let's not worry too much about the psychological advantage Arsenal had in Petr Cech in goal, facing what had been, just a few weeks before, his teammates of the previous 11 years; and let's not yet get into Radmel Falcao's lack of bite up front, the absence of Diego Costa's aggression and Eden Hazzard's patent legginess, or even the state of the Wembley pitch (blamed on the summer concerts, though, clearly not two cancelled nights of Foo Fighters...).

No, let's go straight to a five-second sequence of petulance that happened at the very end of the entire show - Arsène Wenger's deft avoidance of Mourinho's hand (who had been waiting at the foot of the Wembley steps playfully embracing Arsenal players as they trooped down with their winners' medals). Because this, comprehensively and absolutely more than anything that happened between kickoff and full time, has been the main talking point by far.

Should it? The Times' Oliver Kay this morning wrote: "[Wenger and Mourinho's] behaviour towards each other is petty and puerile and you just know that, if Arsenal are ready to challenge for Chelsea's Premier League title this season, the playground stuff threatens to get worse. At least on the pitch, Arsenal showed yesterday that they have grown up and that they mean business for the campaign ahead."

I couldn't agree more, and I tweeted as such. Cue a flurry of derision, an equal amount of agreement, and a lot of the "nothing to see here, move along" ilk. To be fair to Kay (and he tweeted as such), this was the last paragraph of a 1000-word match report. And yes, guilty as charged that we're focusing on the sensational rather than the somewhat more pedestrian nature of yesterday's match which, for the most part, was played in a respectful and - for the modern game - sporting fashion.

But let's not forget that Mourinho and Wenger are two of football's most intelligent, media-savvy managers. We all know the historical bad blood between them - not least of which, Mourinho's "specialist in failure" dig and Wenger shoving his rival last October at Stamford Bridge. But just as Alex Ferguson frequently let casual barbs out for attention-diversion, both the Arsenal and Chelsea managers know how much of a spotlight they're under, more as their rivalry has grown, and are unreservedly aware that even the slightest look in the opposite's direction will get media coverage. Which is why they shouldn't do anything of the sort.

In boxing it is to be expected, encouraged even. Pre-fight press conferences explode because that is the hope of those drumming up ticket sales and pay-per-view revenues for the fight itself. And, after all, weigh-in dust-ups are as much a part of the boxing pantomime as professional wrestling's faux fighting.

Football, however, especially between two teams like Arsenal and Chelsea, each built on solid footballing philosophies (even if, according to Mourinho, Arsenal left theirs in the Wembley dressing room...), doesn't need such playground nonsense. It should be well beneath the managers of two clubs with their status.

We can all point to Mourinho as chief culprit, winding his rival up something good and proper. And the professorial Frenchman would do best to just ignore it. Because, as plenty of those on Twitter this morning pointed out, every time one of them reacts to the other, it's news.

Many blamed the media's reporting of these episodes for their continued attention I disagree. I buy the argument that the Daily Mail's endless lurid reporting of every ISIS atrocity merely adds oxygen to the propaganda being sought, but it is impossible for the media not to report on childishness between two of sport's most intelligent figures, especially as they who should know better.

Arsène Wenger doesn't require any village vicar pontification about turning the other cheek any more than José Mourinho needs telling that he should cut out the mind games, the baiting and the sullen-lip 'why me?' insolence (especially as it doesn't exactly endear him further to those who still regard the manager and his club as vulgar arrivistes, 11 years after the Abramovich revolution).

To return to the premise of my Tweet this morning, however, Oliver Kay was bang on the money when he called these managers' behaviour puerile and petty. Because it does indeed mean the shotgun is already loaded for their next encounter, at Stamford Bridge on September 19.

Arsenal are looking sharper than at anytime in the last few years, although, at risk of doing a Mourinho, we Chelsea fans privately hope that Arsenal's season will collapse by January like the elastic predictably giving out on an old pair of Y-fronts.

I can write that, but then I'm neither Mourinho or Wenger. And, yes, it is all too likely that we're in for a season of simmering niggling between them, much like children on the back seat of the family car last Saturday, on the long drive south for the summer.

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