Arsène Wenger and the FA Cup have a curious history. Early in the Noughties, he took semi-permanent ownership of it, then came the years when it seemed like he didn’t care very much for it. And finally, last year, it arguably saved Arsenal manager’s neck, when it became his first trophy in nine years, restored some belief to his team and staved off growing disquiet from the club’s fans.
Now that the old line about how long it has been since Arsenal won anything has gone, new statistics must be found. Here’s one: it’s almost nine years since Wenger last won at Old Trafford. But these are statistics that don’t concern the Arsenal manager, as he prepares for Monday night’s FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United.
“I am not so worried about history,” he said. “I don’t believe in it. The team that is less good, they lose. When the team is not as good, they lose. It doesn’t matter who they are, what shirt they wear, or what stadium they play in. It is down to quality.
“If I’ve learnt something in my life it’s that the performance on the day decides the outcome of the day, not where you play, or anything else.”
This summer it will be 10 years since Chelsea won their first league title under Jose Mourinho, ending a near decade-long era in which Arsenal and Manchester United fought for supremacy. This rivalry, it is plain to see, is not what it was. It is a long time since Arsenal v Manchester United was the match that decided the season, or on the odd occasion it happened, the FA Cup’s miracle tie, but such an all-conquering duopoly may never emerge again.
“Today you have more competitors, and it will get worse with the seasons to come, because there is now more money, and that means even the smaller teams will be capable to buy the best players in Europe,” Wenger said. “Maybe the competition will become harder for everybody.”
Manchester United vs Arsenal combined XI
Manchester United vs Arsenal combined XI
1/11 David De Gea (Man Utd)
While David Ospina has impressed recently after taking Arsenal's No 1 shirt from Wojciech Szczesny, David De Gea has been one of the standout players in the division this season.
2/11 Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
The Spanish youngster is improving by the week, while Antonio Valencia still struggles in the position.
3/11 Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)
A consistent performer in the centre of the Arsenal defence.
4/11 Chris Smalling (Man Utd)
A more solid choice than Per Mertesacker.
5/11 Luke Shaw (Man Utd)
The £30m man just makes the starting line-up ahead of Kieran Gibbs.
6/11 Francis Coquelin (Arsenal)
A revelation in the defensive midfield role for the Gunners. Just gets the nod ahead of Daley Blind due to recent form.
7/11 Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)
Possibly Arsenal's best player this season, even wearing the captain's armband on occasions.
8/11 Angel Di Maria (Man Utd)
Has come in for much criticism after his poor run of form, but has still enough to keep Danny Welbeck, not a natural right-winger, out of the side. Theo Walcott is not firing on all cylinders yet after lengthy absence.
9/11 Wayne Rooney (Man Utd)
The captain has three goals in his last four games, and gets in ahead of the inconsistent Mesut Ozil.
10/11 Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)
The first name on the team sheet.
11/11 Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)
Has scored five goals in his last five games for Arsenal despite being met with criticism from his own fans. With Robin van Persie injured, his only opponent is Radamel Falcao - who has scored just four goals in 20 appearances for United.
There was one memorable occasion, in 2008, when Arsenal took the second string to Old Trafford and lost 4-0. A promising season turned to disaster, heralding long years of concern about the declining importance of the FA Cup, which in the last couple of years at least, appears to have been arrested.
“I don’t remember exactly the circumstances [of that match],” said Wenger. “But the FA Cup was always badly positioned before the Champions League games so you always had decisions to make.
“A player who was a bit on the edge. What competition do you sacrifice? It was always the FA Cup in the end,” he added, referring to the decisions managers face in terms of which game to use a particular player in. “Sometimes as well, years before, I did not sacrifice the FA Cup, and we paid the price because we lost one or two important players just two or three days before an important game. So that explains that.
“Sometimes, as well, we played the FA Cup after a big Champions League game away from home.”
This is a tournament Wenger certainly wants to win, but even now he knows that other Herculean tasks await, not least attempting to score three goals in Monaco next week to avoid being eliminated from the Champions League.
“Once you get to the quarter-final you know that’s a good opportunity to win a trophy. You want to do it, but it’s at that stage where it’s conflicting always with the Champions League.
“Some teams play in the Champions League next week but they’re not in the FA Cup. Over the weekend, they can prepare properly for the Champions League, so they might have thought is it one or the other.”
Asked of his favourite memory of Old Trafford, his answer is an obvious one.
“The [Sylvain] Wiltord goal,” he said. That was the winner in the 1-0 victory that clinched Arsenal the 2002 Premiership title in their rivals’ stadium, and with it the Double. The FA Cup final took place before the end of the regular season that year.
“The fact that we could win the championship there, and that was after the FA Cup final, and then three days later we won there, and that definitely, was the Premiership title. That is my favourite.”Reuse content