As the urbane architect of the most successful decade in his club's history gave way, on the press conference podium, to a manager of combustible impulsiveness whose ambitions extend no further than to survive one season at the top of his profession, the thought occurred as a challenge to any obvious logic that maybe the former could still learn something from the latter.
It popped up in the analysis of a result that, in some ways, was entirely predictable, in spite of the contrasting ambitions of the parties involved.
This was a match seemingly made to confirm the current Arsenal stereotype, pitting physical against technical, athletic against aesthetic. Yet the real difference probably lay in psychology. In that respect, it was a game in which Neil Warnock was always the more likely winner.
Warnock is 58 and has been a manager for 25 years but has never lost his schoolboy enthusiasm for football. Of all the games that raised his pulse rate as he looked down the fixture list for his debut season in the Premiership, none could match this one, instantly stirring misty-eyed, sepia-tinted memories of his Sheffield childhood and the first time his father took him to Bramall Lane.
As the floodlights illuminated the falling rain on Saturday evening and the pitch turned sticky, for a moment in his mind Warnock was probably back in the Fifties, being passed over one willing head to another to be allowed a vantage point at the front and almost trembling from the noise of the crowd as the teams kicked off.
If these were the images he recreated in his team talk, it clearly worked. They were rewarded with a performance that had little to commend it in terms of fluent, creative football but contained every ounce of gut-busting passion their manager could have hoped for. Warnock's respect for Arsène Wenger and the style with which his teams play is genuine, but there would be no standing back to admire their work.
When injury struck down the goalkeeper Paddy Kenny 15 minutes into the second half, requiring an outfield player, Phil Jagielka, to take over between the posts, where he performed with competence and composure, United became stronger still. The crowd, too, played their part, responding to Warnock's arm-waving at the start of five minutes' stoppage time to create a din that brought a lump to his throat. "I've never known an atmosphere like it," he said.
Arsenal, in fact were no pushovers. It was not through lack of commitment, from a seriously understrength team, that their hopes of finishing in the top two have receded again. Always, however, there seemed to be an enveloping body of red-and-white stripes to close the route to goal and, when Kolo Touré's mistake let in the Frenchman Christian Nade four minutes before half-time, it was the home side who had the man capable of delivering a decisive finish, enough ultimately to secure the points that would take Warnock's team five points clear of the bottom three in the table ahead of today's visit to relegation rivals Middlesbrough.
Nade, a 22-year-old signed from Troyes last summer, is not yet ready, his manager feels, to cope with 90 minutes at this intensity, but clearly has something to offer, even if Warnock's claim that "Thierry Henry couldn't have taken the goal better" was stretching it.
Wenger summed up, without irony, by describing a "typically English game in which they gave everything and we did", yet could not resist a moan. The pitch, he said, "worked to their advantage" while "one or two challenges, especially on [Robin] van Persie, were difficult to take."
With this came the suspicion that where Warnock had scored a psychological success, Wenger had sliced in an own goal. Maybe there were grounds for complaint after Van Persie had gone down in a heap midway through the first half, alleging a punch against Chris Morgan, the United captain, but the damage was minimal and by drawing attention to such things Wenger reinforces the perception of his players as soft. No one, Warnock could point out, thinks that of Manchester United or Chelsea.
Goal: Nade (41) 1-0.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kenny (Tonge, 61); Kozluk, Jagielka, Morgan, Armstrong; Gillespie, Montgomery, Leigertwood (Davis, 27), A Quinn; Kazim-Richards, Nade (Hulse, 70). Substitutes not used: Webber, Law.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Lehmann; Hoyte (Fabregas, 64), Touré, Senderos, Clichy; Flamini, Julio Baptista, Silva; Rosicky (Denilson, 83), Aliadière, Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Lauren, Song.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire)
Bookings: Sheffield United: Morgan, Hulse. Arsenal: Rosicky, Van Persie, Fabregas.
Man of the match: Jagielka.
Attendance: 32,086.Reuse content