The Arsenal dressing-room at Old Trafford was a shambles; at least one player was in tears, while another, Igor Stepanovs, probably doubted he would ever take the field again. They had been five down at half-time, lost 6-1 and surrendered last season's claim to the title before February was out. Manchester United were 16 points clear and the gulf seemed wider still.
That it has been closed this quickly is a measure of Arsène Wenger's achievement and reclaiming the title at Old Trafford this evening would be both fitting and symbolic. It would also hurt Sir Alex Ferguson very badly.
The rivalry between Wenger and Ferguson is both intense and unusual. Not since Brian Clough marched into Elland Road and denounced Don Revie by saying "Gentlemen, the first thing you can do for me is put your medals and your pots and pans into the dustbin because you've never won anything fairly; you've done it by cheating" has a managerial rivalry seemed so acute.
Ferguson reacted badly to Wenger from the moment he was appointed: "He comes over here from Japan and tries to tell us how to run the English game". Later, he was upset at the grudging way Wenger has appeared to acknowledge Manchester United's recent triumphs while he had been generous in his praise when Arsenal took the Double in 1998. "A truly special team," he had called them.
Not only did Wenger not reciprocate, he remained defiantly beyond the social compass of the manager of Manchester United and indeed almost everybody else, save perhaps Glenn Hoddle and Gérard Houllier. Ferguson is a highly clubbable member of football's élite; counting Ottmar Hitzfeld and Marcello Lippi among his friends, but whereas Gianluca Vialli and even Claudio Ranieri had accepted his offer of hospitality at Old Trafford, Wenger always refused.
Wenger, unlike Ferguson, does not appear to possess what Denis Healey called "a hinterland". The Manchester United manager has written seven books about various aspects of his life, learned to play the piano, enjoys cooking, fine wines, horse racing and politics. As for Wenger, his life outside football seems unknowable; he walks his dog, he has a five-year-old daughter but that is all. Unlike Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires, Wenger did not pass comment on Jean Marie Le Pen's candidacy for the French presidency; like many public figures in France, his private life is his own and, as for socialising, he says his year in Japan with Grampus Eight taught him the value of solitude and contemplation.
He has, naturally enough, been immune to what the media likes to call "Fergie's mind games", although in truth his brand of amateur psychology has worked only once and that on Kevin Keegan's fragile persona as Newcastle blew up in the final stages of the 1996 title race. Ferguson's astonishing tirade on Monday against those who questioned his purchase of Juan Sebastian Veron – "you are all f***ing idiots," he screamed before throwing the entire Manchester press corps out of United's training ground – suggested that he had "lost it" just as much as Keegan did with his celebrated "I'd love it" speech on Sky television. For someone who counts the Prime Minister's press chief, Alistair Campbell, among his friends, Ferguson's public relations this season have been barrel-scrapingly abysmal. Wenger, by contrast, has been calm, considered and sometimes witty.
The Arsenal manager has endured greater psychological pressure than anything Ferguson could conjure up, notably competing for the French championship with Monaco, while knowing that their closest rivals Marseilles, under the direction of owner Bernard Tapie, were bribing officials to fix matches.
There will probably be no great speeches in the visitors' dressing-room at Old Trafford tonight. Wenger has never used oratory as Ferguson did, most famously with his half-time talk during the European Cup final against Bayern Munich – "You will pass six inches from the cup and you won't be able to touch it". Emmanuel Petit does recall the occasional half-time explosions from Wenger, but added: "They were like a father getting angry with his own children."
In his autobiography, Wenger's captain, Tony Adams, stated: "Sometimes Arsène does not appear a great communicator when it comes to team talks. They are certainly minimalist in instruction and motivation, as is his coaching. He likes to make observations rather than give orders."
As the season reached its climax, Wenger frequently stated that this was a better side than the one which had won the Double in his first full season at Highbury. At first sight it appears difficult to agree. Then, the midfield boasted Vieira, Petit and Overmars, the forward line was led by Bergkamp and Anelka, while the back four which had driven George Graham's celebrated side to two championships was younger and intact.
However, in Wenger's own words they may not have had the "desire, the commitment, the spirit" of the current Arsenal squad, which was forged by a string of frustrations, not least the failure to compete against United for two successive seasons and defeat in first the Uefa and then the FA Cup final. This season Arsenal went to Anfield and won when reduced to 10 men and then defeated Newcastle at St James' Park without Henry, Parlour, Cole, Adams, Van Bronckhorst and Keown. Pires, the man he had transformed into the footballer of the year, would play no part after suffering cruciate ligament damage in March. Stepanovs, the wretched villain of Old Trafford 2001, became an admirable stand-in for Adams. They have scored in every game and not lost a Premiership match away from Highbury since that 6-1 annihilation at Old Trafford. That is character.
His summer buys were solid. While Ferguson disposed of Jaap Stam for the older, slower, if more aware Laurent Blanc and stretched his team beyond breaking-point to accommodate Veron, Wenger brought in Sol Campbell and Richard Wright and left the basics untouched. It is, however, no coincidence that Arsenal began to perform once Wenger had committed his future to Highbury and signed a new contract. Uncertainty is a disease in football; only when Ferguson reversed his decision to retire in January did Manchester United look like the team which had dominated the past decade.
Like Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Juventus in Italy, they might still snatch the title against the odds but United have made too many errors, lost too many games to too many ordinary sides, to deserve it. The team that will confront them in their own lair tonight has become in the space of 14 months anything but ordinary.
EYE TO EYE HOW THE GREAT RIVALS VIEW ONE ANOTHER
FERGUSON ON WENGER AND ARSENAL
He never comes for a drink with the opposing manager after matches. He's the only manager in the Premiership not to do so. It is a tradition here. It would be good for him to accept the tradition. On Wenger's lifestyle (March 2002)
They've been very clever delaying the tribunal hearings for Henry and Vieira. But life's funny, it may haunt them, that. They wouldn't have waited for three months if it was a United player. It would have been Sing Sing for our player. They would have been on death row for six weeks. But our disciplinary record is tremendous. I'm very proud of it. On Arsenal's disciplinary hearings (March 2002)
They keep saying they're going to win this and that but they haven't won anything yet. I think there is an air of that over-confidence at Highbury, and that may well cost them. If that kind of thing happens, they may end up regretting all those things they have said. I think Arsenal will drop points, I really do. On the Championship run-in (April 2002)
The title is now Arsenal's to lose. After losing to Middlesbrough [March 2002].
WENGER ON FERGUSON AND MANCHESTER UNITED
What would I do if Alex wasn't around? I would have no one to keep me on my toes or to fight. So of course I am pleased he changed his mind. I enjoy our rivalry. It is good for Arsenal, good for Manchester United and good for both of us. On Ferguson's decision not to retire yet (February 2002)
One thing I will say is that he doesn't disturb my nights at all. We didn't do anything, but if we are clever, that's a compliment. On Ferguson's view of Arsenal's disciplinary hearings (March 2002)
What can I say? Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home. On Ferguson's assertion that 'since Christmas, United have been the best team in the country' [April 2002].
The title is now Arsenal's to win. After United lost to Middlesbrough [March 2002)
Research by Edward GibbesReuse content