United in the wings as Wenger waits on stadium

Arsenal v Man Utd: Battle of the big two clubs destabilised by one manager's exit line and the other's prevarication
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The Independent Online

The words could not have been more unequivocal. And this weekend they were, perhaps, particularly pertinent, with Manchester United en route for north London. "I have always committed myself to Arsenal. I have always been very clear about my commitment to the club. If I was not committed to the club, I would have left." The eyes narrow and Arsène Wenger almost defies you to contradict him as he responds tersely to the obligatory question that is now thrust at him on at least a weekly basis.

So, why does the Arsenal manager not put quill to parchment, as they presumably still do things at this most traditional of clubs? After all, we are not talking about the Magna Carta here; merely confirmation that the Frenchman formally accepts that his future lies at Arsenal, and not, say, possibly with the French national team or as successor to Sir Alex Ferguson. The problem with the word "commitment" in football is that it is used as liberally as a bottle of hair gel in the dressing room, and just as frequently discarded into the wastebin.

Yet where Wenger, universally recognised as essentially a "straight but shrewd" character is concerned, there is probably only one factor in the immediate future that could conceivably persuade him to switch allegiances, and that would be the failure of Arsenal to progress with plans for a new 60,000-seater stadium at Ashburton Grove in Islington. A full meeting of Islington Council on 10 December will determine whether work can proceed on the structure, which is scheduled to be ready by the 2004-05 season. The authority desires the status of a world-renowned club in its borough, but is also understandably concerned about local residents' opposition to the plans.

The strongest lever, from Arsenal's perspective, is their manager. Wenger believes that the new stadium must be built if Arsenal are to flourish. Indeed, he would no doubt want to have some input into its design, just as he insisted on certain facilities being included when the club's training ground was built.

"I have a long-term vision for the club and the new stadium is part of that," he says after training at that most contemporary of designs on Friday. "When that happens, I think it can be one of the biggest clubs in the world."

The implicit threat to the council of Wenger's prevarication over his contract is that if the stadium does not get the go-ahead, his future at the club, perceived as essential to Arsenal's future prosperity, could be in jeopardy. If Arsenal are forced to remain at Highbury or the whole issue is delayed, perhaps by a public inquiry, the manager's future becomes less certain. In those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine Manchester United not attempting to lure him.

"When you are a manager, like a player, you always want to be at the top," says Wenger. "I consider that I can be at the top with Arsenal, but of course Manchester United is one of the jobs that can be offered for you to be at the top."

Had he ever considered the possibility of the job? "If I were free I would think about it, highly," he says. "But I'm not." And had any approaches been made, albeit informal ones? "You keep all kind of talks and contacts secret, because that could disrupt things, so I don't want to talk about that."

Received wisdom is that he would be unlikely to accept any overtures from United while Ferguson remained at the club in any capacity. In fact, Bayern Munich could be a more plausible option. His relationship with Ferguson since he arrived at Highbury five years ago has often been uneasy.

"We have never had social meetings," says Wenger. "We only talk at technical meetings at Uefa, things like that. We don't hate each other. We have mutual respect." There have been times when each has irritated the other, unwittingly or not. "It's part of the game," Wenger adds. "That's normal. He wants to win, I want to win. Neither of us hides from coming out and having a go at each other."

For the moment, Wenger claims, he possesses no other ambition other than promoting Arsenal's cause. When asked, after training on Friday, "Can you guarantee unconditionally that you will be coach here next season?", he replied tellingly: "Yes, that's correct. All the rest is internal." Whether he has signed or intends to sign a new contract, he stressed, was "not important". He added: "What is important to the spectators is my commitment. It is not a distraction at all."

That is debatable, however; there is evidence at both Highbury and Old Trafford of instability caused by one manager retiring and the other failing formally to commit himself.

Some would submit that it is even more than that. Anyone who has viewed the BBC's Walking with Beasts will be familiar with the manner in which creatures of seemingly fearsome supremacy can decline, the victims of failing to adapt to a changing environment. There are a ready supply of pundits who claim that the same applies to football; that they hear the death rattle of two creatures that once dominated their territory with the same scent for blood as the now-extinct sabre-tooth tigers.

The difference where Arsenal and Manchester United are concerned, though, is that it is little more than wishful thinking on the part of those who cling to a belief that the dominance of the Red Devils and the Gunners is on the wane.

Today their mighty frames will be entwined in combat at Highbury after a first third of the season in which neither side have managed to win more than half their 12 League games. Both clubs have been affected – however much they may deny it – by irresolution of managerial matters.

"We must find that defensive stability again," admits Wenger. "Last season we had Seaman, Dixon, Keown, Adams and Cole – one new player. This season we play with Wright, Lauren, Campbell, Upson and Cole, so it's completely new. I feel that this team are ready to take off but, of course, to turn things round it's important that we get that kind of psychological boost [of victory over United]. That is down to the team. It is not a matter of Ferguson against me."

Wenger adds: "We are both suffering, neither of our teams are as comfortable as we were before because it takes time to adjust."

While many of his Premiership counterparts will view the back of Ferguson as a spiritual leader as a godsend, Wenger appears disappointed rather than jubilant about his great rival's impending retirement. "Listen, I don't wish to win because of the absence of opponents," he explains. "Anyway, Alex Ferguson has done remarkably well and the club have so much potential; no matter who comes in they will be tough opponents. They have the money to buy a good manager and the money to buy good players. So it will go on."

The conspiracy theorists will contend that the "good manager" in question will be a certain Frenchman. Possible, but unlikely. Wenger is acutely aware that the man who occupies the United bench at Highbury next season will not only have to overcome the inevitable comparison with the master but will face the nigh-impossible task of merely maintaining the club at their present level, let alone enhancing it.

Match-up of the day

Premiership goals this season: Arsenal 25 Man Utd 30.

Games since failing to score: Arsenal 14 Man Utd 13.

Highest scorers: 10 Henry; 5 Van Nistelrooy and Beckham.

Most goals in a match: Arsenal 6 (3-3 v Blackburn; 2-4 v Charlton) Man Utd 8 (5-3 v Tottenham).

Clean sheets kept: Arsenal 4 Man Utd 2.

Matches failed to score: Arsenal 0 Man Utd 0.

Disciplinary record: Arsenal 3 reds, 27 yellows;

Man Utd 1 red, 12 yellows.

Most cautions: Vieira 5 (also 1 red); Scholes 3.

Shots on target: Arsenal 113 Man United 107.

Biggest win this season: Arsenal 4-0 (v Middlesbrough and West Ham). Man Utd 4-0 (v Ipswich).

Biggest defeat this season: Arsenal 2-4 to Charlton; Man Utd 1-3 to Liverpool.

Last season's Highbury result: Arsenal 1 Man Utd 0.

Head-to-head in League: Arsenal 61 wins, Man Utd 67 wins, 36 draws.

Last five matches: Arsenal WDDLD Man Utd WLDLW.

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