There will be a strange moment for Arsene Wenger at Old Trafford on Sunday when he glances across to the opposition technical area and sees not Sir Alex Ferguson, but another fiery Scot in David Moyes. Once that curiousness dissipates, Wenger will return to the task at hand of, after far too many years of operating at a level below United and Ferguson, dealing a massive early blow for his club and against the new man at Old Trafford. A win at the home of the Premier League champions would propel Arsenal 11 points clear. Even in November it would be a powerful statement about the title credentials for both clubs.
Wenger has benefited from the flurry of managerial changes at the Premier League’s big clubs over the summer, with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, and United still at differing stages of works in progress. Of course, there has been more to Arsenal’s early season run than merely profiting from the teething problems of others.
The signing of Mesut Ozil, while a tremendous talent on the pitch, was of huge symbolic value. Following summer after summer of Arsenal’s best players departing for glory and riches elsewhere, now it was they who were bringing in a genuine world-class talent. It signaled a shift from the club merely being happy to persist as an increasingly stubborn testament to Wenger’s ideology while pocketing Champions League cash, to one that was determined to genuinely challenge.
In a very different way, the signing of Mathieu Flamini was another statement. Far from the statement of Arsenal’s continued refusal to spend money that it had first appeared, bringing the French midfielder back to the Emirates has helped breed a culture of players being willing to do the less attractive sides of the game.
Even in Flamini’s absence, this new attitude was demonstrated in emphatic fashion by Arsenal’s display in midweek at Borussia Dortmund. At the home of last season’s Champions League finalists and one of the most devastating counter-attacking teams on the planet, Arsenal put in a near-perfect away performance. They were admirably disciplined throughout and in Aaron Ramsey had a player who again popped up in the right place at the right time to score.
At the home of the champions, will Wenger set his team out to be similarly focused on the opposition’s strengths? There is a strong argument that to do that would be paying United undue respect. Moyes is certainly still trying to impose his own ideas on his squad, but his greatest problem is that he is not Sir Alex Ferguson.
As Wenger has said in the buildup, accurately but with an air of damming with faint praise, “Moyes has shown great competence at Everton.” That’s exactly what he is, a very competent Premier League manager. But put a very competent manager together with what is merely a very competent squad of players and you are not going to get a team liable to take home the major prizes.
In his last years in charge, Ferguson’s brilliance elevated United above what by all rights they should have achieved. Moyes has even acknowledged this, perhaps unwisely, in stating that United lack the class of players to rival the best in Europe. For the moment there are far too many average players at the club, something which his one major summer signing, Marouane Fellaini, has done little to alter.
A lack of imagination pervades United’s play. That Adnan Januzaj, a wonderful talent but one still very much in the learning stages, has stood out so much speaks volumes. United may have won three of their last four in the Premier League, but none have been convincing. Their midfield is still desperately lacking for a club of their ambitions and, with the form of their opposite numbers at Arsenal, it could be a long afternoon for the home side.
Even at Old Trafford, as against Chelsea, Moyes may be rather limited in his ambition and decide his best chances of a result are to negate the strengths of the opposition. The identity of the opponents and the intensity of the occasion should ensure that the competitive spirits are still burning strong for many of United’s stalwarts on Sunday and with Arsenal knowing that a draw would be far from the worse result in the world, a point a piece may well be the outcome.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.