Heart Of Football

Trust Wenger and Pellegrini not to betray their attacking instincts

Arsenal's Mananger Arsene Wenger during the Match between Aston Villa and Arsenal on Dec 13, 2015.
Arsenal's Mananger Arsene Wenger during the Match between Aston Villa and Arsenal on Dec 13, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

No amount of denial could disguise the fact that Chelsea had descended to such a point that their match against Sunderland yesterday amounted to the first stage of a relegation dogfight.

Sure, Jose Mourinho said it was a false position but it was the one he took them to.

This season's Premier League title is on another horizon now. There will be a new champion at the end of it, and many so-called experts are tipping the winner of tomorrow night's game at The Emirates - between Arsenal and Manchester City - to go all the way to lift the trophy at the finish.

Those critics still dismiss the prospects of Leicester City staying the course as a fantasy. And it might be if there is any substance in the rumour that Guus Hiddink suggested while discussing the Chelsea vacancy that he would quite like Roman Abramovich to buy Leicester's goal-scoring Jamie Vardy in January.

But there will be all kinds of froth coming out of Stamford Bridge in the fallout from Mourinho's second coming, and second divorce.

What we can definitively say is that Chelsea's was the worst attempt to defend the title since the Premier League was formed in 1992.

With any luck, we might see Arsenal and City put on a performance tomorrow night that brings out the best qualities of football: Two teams built to go forward, opponents who respect one another's strengths, but who dare to believe they can outscore the other.

This leaves only two managers left in the league who have the experience of winning it - Arsenal's Arsene Wenger and City's Manuel Pellegrini.

Both men managed to keep their dignity and not celebrate the fall of Mourinho this week, despite him never showing either of them any respect while he was winning.

He called Wenger a specialist in failure. He was similarly dismissive towards Pellegrini, who was sacked by Real Madrid to accommodate Mourinho back in 2010.

Right now, there is a name that might make Pellegrini, or even Wenger, shiver in their managerial chairs. It is not Mourinho, rather it is someone else who might be considered the special one among team coaches.

Pep Guardiola is in his final season in charge at Bayern Munich. Carlo Ancelotti has agreed terms to replace him, and the speculation is that Guardiola can have his pick of City, Manchester United, Arsenal, even Chelsea. If you are a betting man, City are the hot tip.

City's chief executive is Ferran Soriano. Their director of football is Txiki Begiristain. They talk Guardiola's language.

They were at Barcelona when Pep was promoted to coach Lionel Messi and Co.

They know what he gives, and what he demands, in terms of total football and total intensity.

Pellegrini says, 50 times a season, that he is not worried about his job, or about the availability of anyone on the market - Mourinho, Guardiola or any other big name.

Pellegrini is a gentleman and a realist. He knows that the two-year contract he signed last summer will be paid in full, no matter what.

Wenger will go in his own time but in this, his 19th season with the Gunners, he has earned the right (many times over) to stay as long as he wants to do.

Arsenal's financial position, as well as their playing style, is largely down to him. The club compete with the billionaire ownerships of Chelsea and the Manchesters because Wenger managed to find, coach and, lately, buy talents to keep abreast with the times.

Why do you think Mourinho moaned about Wenger and Pellegrini almost as much as he did about referees?

I would put envy among his motives.

With any luck, we might see Arsenal and City put on a performance tomorrow night that brings out the best qualities of football: Two teams built to go forward, opponents who respect one another's strengths, but who dare to believe they can outscore the other.

Astonishingly, Arsenal went to the Etihad Stadium last January to defend better than the critics thought they were capable of under Wenger, and to catch City on the break.

They did it, twice, and won 2-0 with goals from Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.

What is French for "parking the bus"? It will be a huge shock if either side approach tomorrow's game in that fashion.

Wenger is toying with whether he dares thrust Alexis Sanchez back into this game after his Chilean star returned to training a few days ago following a hamstring injury.

Pellegrini has a similar decision to make over Sergio Aguero who is back in training after a heel problem.

Alexis and Aguero are potential match-winners.

And this is potentially a decisive match for the 2016 title.

Wenger admits he is pondering over when to bring back Sanchez.

You trust players to know when they are ready, Wenger says, but not all of them. Some always want to play and they hide the pain a little bit. You have to know the player's psychological profile, and you get scientific medical advice as well.

Finally, you have your gut feeling.?

And the players have to trust the manager's decision regardless of their desire to play.

Pellegrini will be going through the same process with Aguero who, the manager says, is close to coming back. Vincent Kompany, whose presence is as important to the defence as Aguero is to the attack and David Silva to the midfield, rules out the captain for the ninth successive game.

"Monday is not a decisive game because, after that, we have to play 21 games more," the City manager insists.

"But it is important to demonstrate who is the best team of the first round.

"It is a game of six points."

Six points? Now, that would be decisive. Wenger feels that City and Arsenal are neck and neck on virtually every statistical analysis this season.

But this wouldn't be Christmas if there were not speculations that Arsenal are about to strengthen in the January window.

Ex-United poacher Javier Chicharito Hernandez is one name, Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic and Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka are others.

Wenger remains as tight-lipped about the market as he does about the sudden departure of You Know Who from Chelsea.

There is a Premier League title to be won, and Monday's tie is a huge step along the way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Trust Wenger and Pellegrini not to betray their attacking instincts'. Print Edition | Subscribe