It has to be more than a decade since Arsenal arrived at Old Trafford in such buoyant mood, with Arsène Wenger’s outfit leading the Premier League by five points heading into Sunday’s clash – a full eight ahead of the hosts. Victory for the Londoners this weekend might just put the title beyond United’s reach before the turn of the year – a narrative popular in certain parts of north London this week.
Certainly, Arsenal’s form this season suggests the visitors will make a better fist of the fixture than in recent seasons where United’s home record against the Gunners reads five wins on the spin and no defeats in seven years, including an infamous 8-2 thrashing in 2011.
Nobody expects United to put up a cricket score on Sunday. Not with the Reds having failed to beat any of the ‘big five’ teams faced to date: defeat to Liverpool and Manchester City, and an uninspiring draw with Chelsea at Old Trafford. Arsenal’s arrival on Sunday, followed by Tottenham Hotspur in early December, is certainly a barometer for the Reds’ season ahead.
Yet, those commentators ranking Arsenal as clear favourites for the tie could be accused of forgetting the weight of United’s history. The hosts’ performances may have rarely sparkled this season, but David Moyes’ team has gone eight games without defeat, albeit with a more cautious approach under the new regime.
Still, this is predominantly Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Whatever the limitations of Moyes’ squad, or the disruption brought by managerial, executive and coaching changes, there is a title to win this season. If United cannot up the level of performance on Sunday then this squad may never – at least not for the new manager.
It is an argument well understood by veteran Ryan Giggs, who turns 40 at the end of November, but is seemingly as determined as ever.
“Are you making us underdogs? Man United v Arsenal at Old Trafford – underdogs? I wouldn’t say we were underdogs,” said the Welshman, who will play in his 50th clash against the Gunners if selected.
“I take your point that Arsenal are probably the form team and it is going to be a tough game, but at home we can beat anyone. We’ve not started the season as well as we wanted to and Arsenal have so we will go into the game knowing we need to produce a good performance.
“Over the years we have played against some very good Arsenal teams. You know what you’re going to get: they’re going to keep the ball, they have got plenty of quality and they are in good form. But at Old Trafford we are always confident that no matter who we are playing, we can beat them.”
What a difference a few months makes. United’s 20th title, claimed by a now unimaginable 11 point margin, has long since been consigned to the glory of history. Meanwhile, those Arsenal fans calling for Wenger’s head shortly before the transfer window closed in early September have now been emboldened.
That window has proven pivotal. While United added an underwhelming Marouanne Fellaini to Moyes’ squad, the Londoners’ major signing - Mesut Özil – has proven a catalyst that will seemingly push Arsenal far closer to the title than at any point in the past decade. The German has not ameliorated all of Arsenal’s weaknesses, but has instilled a belief rarely seen in Wenger’s squad in recently seasons.
“I said at the start that Arsenal have got the same chance as the rest of us to win the league,” said Moyes, who also revealed that he turned down the chance to sign Özil this summer.
“It’s an open Premier League. They’ve had a really good start but it will only be decided at end of the season who will win it. We’ll wait and see until then.
“Arsenal are coming to play the champions. They’re in the top position at the moment, their form has been very good and they’ll come here in good spirits. But we’ve had some growing momentum and we want to put on a good show.”
That show, if it comes, will be without Rafael da Silva and Danny Welbeck, who remain on the sidelines with injury. However, Jonny Evans and Michael Carrick should return despite earlier reports that the Englishman is still troubled by a calf problem. Welbeck is suffering from ongoing fluid on the knee, while Rafael will not return until after the international break.
Injuries aside, Moyes has a number key personnel and tactical decisions to make ahead of Sunday’s clash. The former Everton manager could trust to creativity by including both Shinji Kagawa and brilliant teenager Adnan Januzaj, alongside Wayne Rooney and former Gunner Robin van Persie. There is surely no better time.
History, and type, suggests that Moyes is more likely to adopt the cautious approach seen in San Sebastian during the Reds’ bore draw against Real Sociedad in midweek. Either way, it is a pivotal decision in the Scot’s fledgling Old Trafford career.
In central midfield one from Giggs, Fellaini and Tom Cleverley will partner Carrick, while Evans is likely to start alongside one of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić or Phil Jones. Chris Smalling will again start at right-back.
Meanwhile, Rooney is seeking to add to the 13 goals he has scored for United against Arsenal. The English forward burst onto the Everton scene as a 17-year-old with a stunning strike against the Londoners at Goodison Park. He has evidently enjoyed facing Wenger’s side in the decade since.
With seven goals the 28-year-old has found a new confidence this season. He might need it if United is to register a win against one of the title contenders for the first time in the campaign.
“We’re obviously capable of beating Arsenal, we’ve done it many times in the past,” Rooney told ManUtd.com.
“They’re on a good run of form at the moment, but we’ll wait and see where they are in March. We’ve seen before that they’ve been in the top two until February or March and then faded away, so it’s down to them to try and stay there.
“There have only been 10 games gone so there’s no big worry at the moment. We’re starting to do well. If we can get the victory on Sunday then we’re in a great position. Eight matches unbeaten is a good run. We’re getting more clean sheets and we’re playing with freedom.”
Meanwhile, Wenger should welcome back Mathieu Flamini after the Frenchman recovered from a recent groin problem. Jack Wilshere faces a late test on an ankle injury, although Theo Walcott, Yaya Sanogo, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski and Abou Diaby all miss out with injury.
Wenger has become increasingly bullish in recent weeks, having endured significant criticism over nine years without silverware during Arsenal’s transition from Highbury to the Emirates stadium. He side has not yet proven as durable as the Frenchman, although it is surely north London outfit’s best chance in the past decade to secure English primacy.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Wenger’s new found confidence comes in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement – the Scot having thoroughly bested his erstwhile rival. Yet, the transition affords Wenger an opportunity to offer magnanimous praise for the new man.
“David Moyes has shown great competence at Everton, so you need to leave him time to really get a grip on Man United, and he is slowly doing that,” said Wenger.
“You see it now in the results. When someone has been there for 26 years and goes, it takes time for the guy who comes in. It is very dangerous and difficult for the manager who comes in. For me, Moyes is dealing very well with the situation.”
Not all United supporters will agree. Then again, they rarely have with Wenger, a man who has transformed from bête noire, to figure of mockery. And perhaps back again.
Manchester United v Arsenal, Premier League, Old Traford, 4pm, 10 November 2013
United (4-1-4-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Evra; Jones; Januzaj, Carrick, Fellaini, Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Jones, Ferdinand, Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young, Kagawa, Giggs, Valencia, Hernández
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Flamini, Arteta; Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud. Subs from: Vermaelen, Gibbs, Fabianski, Bendtner, Jenkinson, Gnabry, Hayden
United 91 Draw 47 Arsenal 78
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistants: S Burt, S Long
Fourth Official: A Marriner