Manchester United v Arsenal: Arsene Wenger is a name for United to fear once more
Arsenal are a 'different' team to the one demolished 8-2 at Old Trafford in 2011 concedes one of the participants that day, defender Phil Jones
Sunday 10 November 2013
If you place Sir Alex Ferguson's autobiographies side by side, you will notice the difference. In the first he is "Wenger", the name almost spat out. In the second, published eight years after Arsenal last won a piece of silverware, he is "Arsène".
They once shared a stage together for a talk-in. They very occasionally shared a glass of wine. They were not exactly the Sunshine Boys but there was a mutual respect that comes of being a survivor. However, when he was pressed about the thaw in their relationship, the Arsenal manager replied: "He is nice to me because he does not see me as a threat."
This afternoon, Arsenal arrive at Old Trafford as more than just a threat. Should Manchester United lose, they will fall 11 points behind in the Premier League table, the kind of gap they last endured at this stage in 2005 when, after a 4-1 mauling at Middlesbrough, they were cast 14 points adrift of Chelsea. The club's in-house television station, MUTV, thought it a good idea to ask Roy Keane to analyse the game, resulting in an outpouring of vitriol that destroyed him.
Vitriol once came as standard when Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford. The most famous encounter finished with Wenger and Ferguson squaring up to each other in the tunnel.
Ferguson's suit was showered with soup and pizza. It was unpleasant but Gary Neville recalled he enjoyed these encounters more than any other. They were hard, uncompromising and they decided championships.
The first taste Phil Jones had of these fixtures was surreal. It was August 2011, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri had left and Arsenal were riddled with injuries. They lost 8-2. Ferguson once remarked that some United performances were so good "you could set them to music".
For Wenger this was a funeral march. Ferguson said afterwards that by the end he did not want United to score any more and argued that demands for Wenger to go were symptomatic of a "terrible, cynical world". "It was an incredible day," said Jones. "It was a shock to me. I didn't expect us to score eight goals against a side like Arsenal but we were brilliant that day, passed the ball really well and deserved to win by eight."
Wenger's reaction was almost fatalistic. A decade before, Arsenal had lost 6-1 at Old Trafford. In the dressing room at half time, Wenger exploded. He threw notebooks, water bottles and cups. Robert Pires remembers being showered with mineral water.
Igor Stepanovs, his makeshift centre-half who had been humiliated by Dwight Yorke, broke down in tears. United were 16 points clear. Wenger remarked: "It is often psychologically hard to say to yourself: 'God they are never going to break, they are always there'."
Curiously, after the 8-2 humbling, Wenger rejected suggestions that a single major signing could transform Arsenal, although two years on, this is precisely what has happened just as United look like a team that might be broken.
Jones will probably play in midfield against Mesut Özil. Gareth Barry was given a similar task when England met Germany in Bloemfontein and found himself humiliated. "I am happy to play in midfield," said Jones. "Centre-back is where I see myself settling down but, if I have to play in midfield to help the team, I am more than happy to do that. Özil is a quick player but I could pick out another 10 in the Premiership who are quicker than him."
Such as? "Theo Walcott, he might be playing on Sunday. There are loads of players. I can reel them off. We are more than capable of dealing with quick players. We have got some quality players in this side who can adequately deal with that.
"They are a different team to the one we beat 8-2. They have changed a few faces and become more solid. It will be a cracking game on Sunday and I am sure, if we concentrate on what we are about and what we can do – particularly at home in front of our fans – we can create a special atmosphere."
His manager, David Moyes, rejected Alan Hansen's analysis that United's biggest weakness is a "lightweight" midfield, arguing it would be hard to dismiss Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini as flimsy.
Lightweight was a word that described Arsenal. The sides Neville relished playing could dish it out but Ferguson argued that Wenger became obsessed with a certain type of footballer; the Nasris, the Fabregases, the Arshavins.
"Clones" he called them and United found them increasingly easy to deal with. Arsenal would be allowed plenty of possession, the key was intercepting their passes. They were also susceptible to being roughed up.
Moyes laughed when reminded of that. "They complained about Everton as well," he said. "I'll try to do everything I can to get a victory. I'd like to do it in great style but the most important thing is to win. It wasn't a tactic at Everton but over the years we had to be strong against Arsenal because they had such good players. At Everton there were reasons to be like that. At Manchester United, with the quality we have, we can match what Arsenal have got."
Moyes argued that Arsenal's revival was down not to a single signing but the fact that, unlike the other three Champions' League clubs, they have not changed their manager.
And United are famously slow starters. Only once in the Premier League have they established a clear lead after 10 games and that was 20 years ago. They use midwinter like a Russian general, and there have been signs that the old rhythm is starting to return.
However, the season this most resembles is 2001-2, the one in which Ferguson announced his abortive retirement. Just for a time the cold grip loosened and United lost strange home games to Bolton and West Ham. Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford. He was "Wenger" then and he might be again.
Phil Jones was speaking at the launch of Manchester United's official timekeeper, Bulova
Wenger: Wilshere and Co are our 'Class of '92'
Arsène Wenger believes that his generation of young British players can emulate the achievements of Manchester United's famous "Class of 1992".
"They had an exceptional group together," Wenger said of Sir Alex Ferguson's great United sides. "If you take the two Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and Butt, all of them together, when you have six or seven who can play at that level, then they are ready to fight for their club."
Wenger is now building around Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
"I really believe that in some difficult periods in the season, or in a career, that feeling, that belonging, is very important, and that can only be built with players growing up together," he said.
Wenger also includes Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in this generation of home-grown players. "He grew up here from the age of 15," the manager added.
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