Manchester United were embracing that quintessential Sir Alex Ferguson quality of timekeeping, as they introduced their new official watch partner, and there was also little of the old man’s indignation on display when Ryan Giggs was asked about the notion that his club face league leaders Arsenal as second favourites on Sunday.
“Are you making us underdogs?” Giggs asked. “Manchester United v Arsenal at Old Trafford … underdogs?” Though no one was inflammatory enough to say so, there is a general view in Manchester that Arsenal are not yet leaders by dint of anything resembling the invincibility they displayed when winning the title at Old Trafford in 2002.
They have not faced any of last season’s top four yet. They have not encountered a goalscoring threat of the calibre of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie yet. And though manager David Moyes will naturally bring a different philosophy, United do believe they have the measure of Arsenal – the crucial factor in their thinking always being the old one about the north London team’s dislike of a physical threat.
As Ferguson puts it in his autobiography, Wenger’s “interpretation of physical challenges extended sometimes to the very act of tackling … It was hard for him to accept that teams might adopt a tough approach against his teams.”
Moyes shared Giggs’s mild indignation. “Arsenal are coming to play the champions of last season,” he said. He has only beaten Wenger three times, drawn six and lost 17 over his years in charge of Everton and Preston North End, but the manner of United’s victories in the last two seasons of this Old Trafford fixture mean that an Arsenal win would be an extraordinary statement about how the two teams have diverged from recent levels.
It really is only 12 months since Andre Santos bizarrely took Robin van Persie’s shirt at half-time in Arsenal’s desultory 2-1 Old Trafford defeat – an act of seeming defeatism that incurred the heaviest opprobrium from the club’s supporters. The year before that, it was the 8-2 loss which left Ferguson reflecting privately on Wenger’s folly in signing and selecting teenager Francis Coquelin (“I had hardly heard of him,” he says in his book). which he believes belonged to the theme of Wenger buying poorly.
Ferguson has cited Olivier Giroud as an example of Wenger “overestimating French football” while the best he could say of the German defender Per Mertesacker was that playing him was “not a handicap”.
We are about to find out how much hubris was contained in that Ferguson characterisation of Wenger’s choices as poor and his own as invariably great – and his confidence might very well be misplaced. Ferguson always said Arsenal were a tougher proposition when visiting Old Trafford – where they tend to be less conservative. And though United’s vulnerability this season to sides who burst at pace through their own midfield is likely to be tested less by Arsenal, the visiting team’s central players are – man for man – unarguably greater.
Moyes admitted yesterday the fact that Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil had been offered to United months before they signed Marouane Fellaini – the less formidable of the two by some distance in the past three months. “We weren’t close to buying him. We didn’t need [a player in] that position at the time,” he said. But he did admit that Fellaini has not resembled the player whose last performance against Arsenal was the swashbuckling one which earned Moyes’ Everton a 0-0 draw at the Emirates last April.
“We had to put him in a bit earlier than I’d have liked,” Moyes said. “My plan was to put him in much slower and bring him on and give him a chance to settle in but we put him in early because he needed it and I didn’t think he was quite ready.”
There was a faraway look in Moyes’ eyes when he described how close he had come to signing Aaron Ramsey for Everton, before the Welshman chose Arsenal, also rejecting United’s overtures in the process. “I had him in my house and Arsenal beat me to it,” Moyes said of the Premier League’s outstanding midfielder of this season. “He’s played really well [this season]. He’s improved. He maybe now sees himself as one of the really important players and that can help players.”
A football match ten games into the season can offer no definitive pointers to what might shake out next May, though as always in the rich history of competition between these two teams, the past can provide guidance. When Arsenal won that 2002 title, United were in transition, much as they are now. “It was a non-event for me, in a sense, even though we were chasing second place,” Ferguson later reflected.
His successor said that his side were capable of making up the 11-point deficit on Arsenal which defeat tomorrow would bring, but even he admitted that the changing of the guard at his own club – and others – partly explained Wenger’s return to the top of the table. “The stability they have got has allowed that,” he said.
The sense of instability has been reduced at his own club, with an eight-game unbeaten run now – albeit one that belies patchy form – and Rooney showing why Wenger coveted his signature this summer. “Arsenal do crop up quite often,” Rooney said yesterday of his ten-goal haul against Arsenal, the most he has scored against one club. “It’s a bit weird,” he said. “I’m sure they must be sick of the sight of me at times.”
Giggs did not want to hear about the mighty Gunners of 2012-13. “To be honest with you, I don’t really take an interest in whether Arsenal have got a big enough squad,” he said. Spoken like a true trooper of the Ferguson era. We are about to learn whether his team really are still the mighty Manchester United, free to brush off opposition at will, both on the field and off.
Ryan Giggs was speaking at the launch of Manchester United’s Official Timekeeper, BulovaReuse content