Sir Alex Ferguson will persist with his youthful revolution at Manchester United for this weekend’s fixture with Arsenal. At least that’s the message from the 69-year-old United manager, who says that form dictates younger stars, including Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, will continue in the United side for the visit of Arsène Wenger’s troubled Londoners. Indeed, with a nearly full squad for Arsenal’s visit Ferguson’s focus on youth is now a matter of expediency alone.
And while Arsenal struggles to overcome the loss of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri this summer, United’s quintet of experienced departures has seemingly revitalised Ferguson’s side. Three inventive performances of attacking verve and youthful flair into the season and a new optimism has descended on Old Trafford, despite the ongoing failure to recruit the new central midfielder many supporters and pundits crave.
How typical of Ferguson then to both praise his young stars and keep their feet firmly on the ground ahead of United’s biggest Premier League match of the season to date.
“They’ve only played a couple of games,” warned Ferguson.
“They have potential and we’re very enthusiastic about that potential and hopeful they can fulfil it. But the name of the game is what they achieve.
“I have a tremendous problem when it comes to picking a side but it is the kind of problem I want. Maybe some of their form will taper off. That is when the squad comes into play. At the moment they are doing very well. So I have to let it carry on.”
The aforementioned quartet of Jones, Smalling, Cleverley and Welbeck is likely to be included in Fabio Capello’s England squad for Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales early next month on the back of an excellent start to the new season. With Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and, potentially, Rio Ferdinand also included United could boast up to eight players in the Italian’s squad.
The call-ups are, of course, a bitter-sweet moment for Ferguson, the Scotsman who has always put United before international commitments. Moreover, with Ferguson regularly falling foul of the Football Association, the United manager has more reason than most to resent England’s call for his youngsters.
“It’s not a problem for us. The FA may realise who has produced more players for their country than any club in the world,” added Ferguson, of the group’s call-up.
“Maybe they will get some joy from it and realise how important we are to England instead of treating us like shit. I am pleased for the players. They are outstanding so we’re all pleased.”
Internationals are for next week though and Ferguson can boast an almost fully fit squad for Arsenal’s visit. Aside from Nemanja Vidic, whom Ferguson confirmed will not return for another month, and Rafael da Silva, the Scot can choose from the full compliment available.
Indeed, fellow Scot Darren Fletcher played the full 90 minutes for United’s reserves on Thursday night and could feature against Arsenal after spending the past six months largely on the sidelines. Meanwhile, winger Antonio Valenica is back in full training, and United will make a late call on Ferdinand’s involvement against Arsenal. Javier Hernández could make his first start of the new season after suffering a concussion in pre-season.
“On the injury front, Darren Fletcher played a game last night which is great news,” Ferguson added.
“I think the boy is back now. He’s had a terrible time but now he’s looking terrific and he’ll be in the squad for Sunday. Chicharito came back on Monday which gives me a tremendous problem for picking a side but that’s the kind of problem we want.”
Ferguson must also choose between Welbeck or the returning Hernández to start alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. Welbeck’s mixed performances against West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur may colour Ferguson’s decision, with Mexican Hernández desperate to start after two months without football. Yet, 20-year-old Longsight-born forward Welbeck also scored one and created a brilliant other against Spurs, underlining the genuine if raw talent at Ferguson’s disposal.
It is a choice that boils down to Hernández’ goalscoring record stacked up against Welbeck’s talent, with Dimitar Berbatov’s class all but forgotten in Ferguson’s revolution; a key story of United’s summer.
“It was great to play again, unbelievable,” Hernández told MUTV.
“I had one month off after the Gold Cup, and then the thing happened with my head, so it was two months without games. That was difficult but I talked to my family and friends every day when I was out, and made sure I was ready. Thankfully, for the last game against Spurs I was on the bench, then I played 10 minutes and I enjoyed it a lot.”
Squad players Carrick and Park Ji-Sung could make their first Premier League appearances of the season if Ferguson opts for experience despite words to the contrary.
Meanwhile, the visitors arrive at Old Trafford boosted by qualification for the Champions League in the past week. Despite the departures of Fàbregas and Nasri a defiant Arsène Wenger has, to date, failed to add expensive replacements to his squad this summer.
Such is Arsenal’s current malaise, having not won a trophy in six years and seen key players depart, that some sections of Britain’s media have suggested Wenger may consider his future at the club. Yet, this widespread belief that the London club is already doomed to failure this season is one Ferguson rejects, despite 15 years of rivalry with his French adversary.
“I would like to know who is going to replace him,” said the United manager.
“The work he has done in the 15 years he has been at the club is the best in Arsenal’s history. Yes, he has not won a trophy for six years but what does that mean? The quality of his side has not been reduced.
“Chelsea’s involvement has created a lot of the problem in terms of trophies to win because they and ourselves have been dominating the Premier League. Now Manchester City have come on the scene. When Arsenal and ourselves were going head-to-head, it went on for about eight years. The competition is far greater now.
“But [Arsenal] answered everybody back on Wednesday. They got a great result and the game on Sunday will be another stepping stone for them.”
It is, however, a match in which Arsenal will be without midfielder Jack Wilshere, missing for three weeks with an ankle injury and, probably, Thomas Vermaelen, who faces a fitness test on Saturday. Meanwhile, Alex Song, Gervinho and Emmanuel Frimpong are all suspended for recent indiscretions. Plus ça change at Arsenal.
The absentees are hardly ideal against a vibrant United side in the 214th meeting between the teams: a series in which United has won 88 times to Arsenal’s 79. Moreover, United has won six of the last seven home fixtures against Wenger’s men.
And while Arsenal emerged victorious in the last fixture between the sides on May day, few will bet against an 89th win for United on Sunday.
Manchester United versus Arsenal, Premier League, Old Trafford, Sunday 29 August, 4pm.
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fábio, Evans, Carrick, Giggs, Pogba, Park, Valencia, Gibson, Fletcher, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Welbeck, Macheda.
Arsenal (4-5-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Miquel, Djourou, Sagna; Walcott, Ramsey, Rosicky, Lansbury, Arshavin; Van Persie. Subs from: Almunia, Fabianski, Traoré, Eastmond, Chamakh, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyaichi, Bendtner
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)