Sir Alex versus Arsene Wenger. Schmeichel versus Wright. Vieira v Keane. Van Nistlerooy v Keown. Manchester United v Arsenal returns to our screens on Sunday as two of the Premier League’s mainstays go head to head in the latest chapter of this compelling duel.
Not so long ago, this fixture was the stand-out game in the Premier League calendar as the footballing community paused for 90 minutes to watch these two juggernauts go at it hammer and tongs.
This contest was formerly given great attention as Sky counted down the days to kick-off. This time there’s no ‘Grand-Slam Sunday’. No ‘Face-off’. No booming sinister voiceover as the two captains ride into a ghost town, chewing on grass stalk with the only sound the rustling of bales, agitated saloon doors and the clicking of boot spurs as they dismount for a standoff. Sunday’s encounter shares the billing with two other contests in a rather modest ‘Super Sunday Hat-trick’. After a lull of around eight years, there is much to suggest the titanic battles of the mid to late nineties and early naughties are about to return.
Arsenal are currently benefitting from a three-pronged attacking midfield three of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla and the reborn Aaron Ramsey. The trio are finding pockets in between the opposition’s backline and midfield, yielding great success. Ramsey alone has already scored 11 times in all competitions. Compare his tally to his two strikes from last season, and you can understand why various pundits expect him to reach 20 goals - and why he’s an early frontrunner for Player of The Year.
Wayne Rooney has dismissed talk of United’s title defence going up in smoke should they lose on Sunday. However, ten games in and there’s much to suggest the league is beginning to take shape. This game carries with it huge significance; especially where Arsenal are concerned.
November has recently proved to be a graveyard in picking up points. Good starts have been derailed:
P W D L WIN % WIN % SEASON
2006/07 8 3 2 3 38% 47%
2007/08 5 2 2 1 40% 60%
2008/09 8 4 1 3 50% 54%
2009/10 5 3 0 2 60% 60%
2010/11 8 4 0 4 50% 52%
2011/12 6 3 2 1 50% 57%
2012/13 7 2 4 1 29% 53%
Indeed, Wenger was correct to flag Rooney up on his assertion that Arsenal have traditionally faded away. Wenger’s charges have relied heavily on strong finishes to recover winters of discontent.
As Arsenal recovered from the opening-day defeat to Aston Villa, Wenger could’ve be forgiven for having one eye on the month that has proven so often to be his team’s Achilles heel. A much-improved Liverpool were to travel to the Emirates, while the Champions League group stages sandwiched a visit to Borussia Dortmund in between this weekend’s trip to Old Trafford. Wenger will also have envisioned quicker than most the work being done by Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, Arsenal’s visitors to the Emirates after the international break.
Brendan Rodgers’ side were beaten 2-0, while a 1-0 success at the Westfalenstadion in midweek avenged the home defeat to Dortmund last month. Arsenal have negotiated the above challenges so far, and travel to Old Trafford five points clear at the top of the league. They are arguably favourites ahead of the game, a far cry from the embarrassing 8-2 defeat they suffered at Old Trafford a little over two years ago.
Arsenal have also learned to cope with the absence of influential holding midfielder Mathieu Flamini in their last two games. When the Frenchman was forced out of the first Dortmund game owing to concussion, Arsenal missed his presence and fell to their first defeat in 12. Flamini’s latest groin injury hasn’t been felt as hard, with the team picking up wins over Liverpool and Dortmund; Mikel Arteta providing the shield to their back four. Should Flamini miss out, Arsenal’s fans won’t be as concerned as they may have been four weeks ago. Notwithstanding this, Flamini has been an unsung hero for Wenger this season and, if selected, will need to be at his best to keep an increasingly influential Rooney quiet.
As for United, David Moyes will be encouraged with the shoots of recovery after a jittery start to his tenure. Despite rumours Rooney wanted out in the summer, he has, along with Adnan Januzaj, been their turn-to guy. Since United lost at home to West Brom in September, they are on an eight-game unbeaten run. A Januzaj-inspired 2-1 success at Sunderland acted as a catalyst for this sequence, and Wenger will be weary of the threat posed by the Belgian teenager.
The two sides’ contrasting styles will make for intriguing viewing. Arsenal’s midfield protagonists will hope to keep things congested through the middle, while United will look to profit on the counter in wide areas. It will be interesting to see who Moyes opts for on the right wing. Nani has enjoyed previous meetings against Arsenal, while Antonio Valencia scored in his last outing against Fulham, and will hope to retain his starting berth.
History dictates Arsenal success over United leads to greater success for the North London club over the course of the season. In their three Premier League triumphs, Arsenal stand unbeaten in six league encounters including four wins. Their two successes at Old Trafford provide iconic mementos to Arsenal fans, as images of Marc Overmars and Sylvain Wiltord wheeling away in celebration secured the league title on both occasions.
Although success at the weekend won’t seal their 14th league title, nor end their nine-year wait for a trophy, it will give Arsenal great self-confidence as the nights draw in and the season really cranks up. Rooney’s assertion that defeat won’t be a season-ender may be true, but it will severely dent Moyes’ mojo as he looks to justify his tag as the Chosen One.
Expect fireworks, if not flying pizza.