Back when their rivalry was at its peak, before it had come to seem a bit like the fossil of an earlier football civilisation, Arsène Wenger was asked to respond to one of Sir Alex Ferguson's more rabid asides. "Please," said Wenger, "never again put to me the views of that man. I don't want to hear his name."
Though considerable mutual respect has grown since those days of intense psychological warfare – not to mention the fabled chucking of the odd piece of pizza by the teenaged Cesc Fabregas – it is not so hard to imagine this week Wenger with his hands still clamped over his ears.
The trouble is Ferguson has once again confirmed his status not so much as a waspish old foe, always ready to probe the weakness of a rival, but a walking reproach to any football manager who loses a stride, who fails to respond to the imperative which has plainly shaped every day of his own working life.
This, as we saw so vividly at Old Trafford on Monday night, is constantly to reseed a winning team.
Not for the future but for today. Not according to some well-honed philosophical principles, but the need to create seamless progression while always retaining the ability to win at the highest level.
Danny Welbeck (right) and Tom Cleverley may have much more to do to justify the optimism created by their impressive contributions to the victory over Spurs – and the enraptured welcome provided by their manager when they left the field – but what couldn't have been conveyed much more strongly was United's continued ability to irrigate a title-winning team with fresh, young blood.
In the process they held up a mirror to Arsenal's current plight in a way that almost carried a touch of sadism. Here was the second-youngest team fielded in Premier League history conducting highly effective business against one of England's better teams.
If Wenger feels the touch of paranoia which comes to most victims of conspiracies of fate, he is not without reason. The pressure to avoid the catastrophe of ejection from the Champions League tonight, with its huge loss of revenue and complication to the signing moves he so desperately needs to make, is immense enough to shred battered nerves in any one week. Then it becomes almost grotesque when you throw in Sunday's visit to an Old Trafford which will surely be at the upper end of its bombast register.
What can Wenger do? He must, as a matter of the greatest urgency, separate himself from the feeble argument of his most devoted admirers that there is nothing wrong with the current team. This is borderline bonkers. The signings have to be made before the transfer deadline, the agonising about value for money and the perfect deals – of which Wenger will always be able to claim a formidable number – has to be put aside for more serene days.
Arsenal have now to do in barely a week something United has always tended to perform over the years. Of course, it is too soon to say that Ferguson has again hit the football gold standard, but if Wenger least wants to hear the name of his old rival this week it is not because of old wounds and antipathy, but the unswervable fact that the balance of power between the pair has never seemed so remote.
The problem for Wenger in this of all weeks is that the pressure to recreate some sense of that past has never been more pressing.
In this sense the message from Old Trafford this week could hardly have been more timely – or potentially cruel. It said that the best way to recreate a great past will always be to live in today.Reuse content