Arsène Wenger narrows his eyes, folds his arms and says that he will never reveal exactly what happened on 24 October 2004 when Sir Alex Ferguson had pizza thrown at him by Wenger's Arsenal players. "I don't know Ferguson well enough to say that I am friends with him. I respect him for what he has done, and for what he is doing in the job," Wenger says. "That's it."
About the same time yesterday lunchtime in south Manchester, Ferguson tiptoes around the subject of his relationship with Wenger – as much as a man like Ferguson ever tiptoes. He praises Wenger's decision to dispense with Thierry Henry in the summer – "He had served his time" – and sympathises with the big calls facing top managers. "You have to make some crucial decision and some bold decisions," he says.
Yesterday, before their teams met for the 34th time in almost 11 years, these two brilliant, awkward men were cajoled into revealing what it is about each other they like and loathe. Once again they gave precious little away. Wenger does not share the same English obsession with laying bare the emotional details. Perhaps Ferguson is saving his version for the update of his 1999 autobiography, which will be a blockbuster when it comes. The only way to really understand the psychology of these two will be today at the Emirates Stadium for the marquee fixture of the Premier League season so far.
Lots of half-baked theories have been offered on the Wenger-Ferguson dynamic over the years, plenty of old guff about the cultured Frenchman against the son of a Govan shipyard timekeeper. It is a nonsense that overlooks the fact that Wenger grew up in the austerity of post-war France and it completely undersells Ferguson's tough brand of intelligence and intuition. But put the sociology aside and consider a different question: how are these two men similar?
As the Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture is once again the game between the two main Premier League title contenders, there is a great truth about these two managers that should be grasped. They are both in charge of teams playing football that is attacking, thrilling and memorable. It is a rebellion against the safer, conservative elements who have held sway in recent years. For once in a league that is hyped to the point of frenzy, today's is a game that is genuinely worth the anticipation.
Ferguson was busy reminding everyone yesterday that he had foreseen Arsenal's renaissance – a point he made about his old rivals in the pre-season tour to Asia. So he saw this new Arsenal team coming? "Absolutely. You remember what I said here before the season started, that there was no way Arsenal were going to be 20 points behind Manchester United again?" he said. "I knew there was going to be a strong effort from them and they've added that maturity that the young players have got – will get – in a new season. So I expected them to be challenging and they've done very well."
Not many sides go to Anfield and tutor Liverpool in the merits of a passing game as Wenger's did on Sunday. "I feel Manchester United and Arsenal play attacking football, more or less successfully, but I think there is a change of style now," Wenger said. "Chelsea want to play a more risky game. What is important is we keep our style. There is room for improvement on our side, because we are very young. We are very, very hungry for success."
Who will teach the new players about the sides' old enmity now that Roy Keane is no longer around to seek out Patrick Vieira in the long-gone cramped Highbury tunnel and Ruud van Nistelrooy and Martin Keown have left the stage? Wenger made the appropriate remarks about the managers' responsibility not to stoke up this fixture; Ferguson will no doubt approve of that, although something tells you that even the likes of Nani and Bacary Sagna will feel this rivalry in their bones when they step out on the pitch today.
To describe each other – or each other's teams – as "enemies" was, Wenger said, "too big a word". "The managers have a responsibility to make this a football game first," he said. On Ferguson he was about as generous as he has ever been in recent memory. "He has most of the qualities you need to be a great manager," Wenger said. "He is passionate, he makes the right decisions, he has personality and consistency in his motivation. You must sacrifice your life to be in a job like his such a long time. You get up in the morning and drive to the training ground and you're at work but this job never leaves your head wherever you are. We are the same as far as the sacrifice is concerned."
In return Ferguson talked about the agonising he believed that Wenger must have gone through in releasing Henry in the summer. The United manager always seemed to have an antipathy for the French striker, perhaps the kind only reserved for the players he really wished he had in his own team. But when he talked about the process of letting a star name go, it was borne of experience with those such as Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, David Beckham, Keane and Van Nistelrooy. "I think Arsène did the right thing in letting Henry go," he said. "He had served his time and it was time for him to move on. Henry was probably the most important person in that Arsenal team over the last few years but there's always a time you have to change and managing change is very difficult. I felt that Arsène would sell Henry last season.
"The problem for Arsène Wenger and Alex Ferguson is the length of time they've been at their clubs: 11 years for Arsène and I'll be 21 years next week. You are very emotional, you get attached to players but there's a decision that has to be made about how effective they are in a team and unfortunately for a player-manager relationship I've got to put my Manchester United hat on. I'm paid by them to make these decisions and sometimes they are hard decisions."
Those are the similarities, what then of the differences? Wenger's team took significantly less to assemble than Ferguson's – key players like Cesc Fabregas, Kolo Touré and Gaël Clichy were picked up for very little money. However, United are champions and they have a strong British element to them for those who consider that important. Arsenal's lone Englishman, Theo Walcott, is unlikely even to get a place on the bench today. United are without Paul Scholes but Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick, along with French striker Louis Saha, are fit again.
Thirty-three meetings between the teams of these two men, 22 of them in the Premier League – and of those games, eight wins each and the rest drawn. Come next February, United will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster with a tribute to the Busby Babes – the prototype for the great principle of developing young footballers within a club. Their last game on English soil in 1958 was a victory at Highbury in a 5-4 classic. Fifty years on, the great home-grown team is Arsenal more than United, and with players sourced from all over the world. "That's where the common ground is [with Ferguson]," Wenger said. "He's not scared to take a chance with young players and bring them through, and nor am I."
The Third Coming: Wenger and Ferguson's rebuilding projects
* Wenger's Arsenal
* 1997 - 1998 Double winners(4-4-2, all-time club appearances in brackets): Seaman (563); Dixon (618), Keown (449), Adams (capt, 668), Winterburn (584); Parlour (467), Petit (118), Vieira (407), Overmars (142); Anelka (89), Bergkamp (423, pictured). Substitutes: Bould (372), Platt (108), Wright (288).
* 2003 - 2004 INVINCIBLES
(4-4-2): Lehmann (189); Lauren (152), Campbell (197), Touré (259), Cole (228); Ljungberg (328), Vieira (capt, 407), Gilberto (168), Pires (283); Bergkamp (423), Henry (370).
Substitutes: Keown (449), Kanu (199), Wiltord (175).
* 2007 - 2008
(4-4-2): Almunia (55); Sagna (13), Touré (259), Gallas (capt, 35), Clichy (112); Rosicky (47), Flamini (127), Fabregas (168), Hleb (101); Van Persie (121), Adebayor (69). Substitutes: Eboué (80), Gilberto (218), Walcott (42).
* Ferguson's Manchester United
* 1993 - 1994 DOUBLE WINNERS
(4-4-2): Schmeichel (398); Parker (137), Bruce (capt, 411), Pallister (433), Irwin (511); Kanchelskis (132), Keane (458), Ince (276), Giggs (648); Hughes (453), Cantona (184, pictured).
Substitutes: Sharpe (213), Robson (437), McClair (398).
* 1998 - 1999 TREBLE WINNERS
(4-4-2): Schmeichel (398); G Neville (514), Stam (125), Johnsen (131), Irwin (511); Beckham (356), Keane (capt, 458), Scholes (456), Giggs (648); Yorke (120), Cole (231). Substitutes: Butt (307), Sheringham (101), Solskjaer (216).
* 2007 - 2008
(4-4-2): Van der Sar (111); G Neville (capt, 514), Ferdinand (227), Vidic (63), Evra (50); Ronaldo (161), Hargreaves (4), Scholes (456), Giggs (648); Rooney (142), Tevez (11). Substitutes: Carrick (58), Nani (9), Saha (67).Reuse content