For the past few weeks, Sunday’s matchup between Manchester United and Arsenal has been the topic of conversation throughout the media and among Premier League fans. According to the press, this contest could “make or break” United’s title run and/or it could define Arsenal as a legitimate front runner for the title.
Arsenal’s midweek Champions League win over Borussia Dortmund has added a new level of intrigue to the match. The Gunners made history by beating the German club in the Westfalenstadion, becoming the first English club ever to do so. And with the victory, Arsenal notched their fourteenth win in fifteen unbeaten away games. They are also top of the Premier League after accumulating 25 points in 10 matches. Their lone league loss was during the opening home match of the season to Aston Villa.
To say the Gunners are entering the contest at Old Trafford on a “high” would be an understatement.
The last time Arsenal walked into the Theatre of Dreams in this type of form was ten years ago. In 2003, the Gunners visited Manchester five games into the season and boasted an unbeaten record that dated back to the conclusion of the previous season. This match would come to be remembered as “The Battle of Old Trafford”.
Prior to this contest, matches between Manchester United and Arsenal had become extremely intense with player arguments and fights breaking out from time to time. The 2003 match in Manchester would be characterized by a huge foul count: thirteen for United, eighteen by Arsenal. Late in the match, Patrick Vieira was sent off for a second yellow card and Arsenal was left to play the remainder of the match with 10 men.
With the score tied in the 90th minute, Manchester United was awarded a penalty by match referee Steve Bennett. United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy stepped up to take the penalty despite having missed his previous two penalties. The Dutchman’s shot hit the bar and rebounded back into play. He was immediately surrounded by Arsenal players, most notably Arsenal center back Martin Keown. At the final whistle, Van Nistelrooy was again the center of Arsenal’s attention as the Gunners taunted him on their way off the pitch. Arsenal would go on to finish the 2003-04 season undefeated (26 wins, 12 draws, 0 losses) and would forever be known as “The Invincibles”.
The bad blood still exists between the two clubs, but it is more reserved for their supporters.
Manchester United and Arsenal are two clubs moving in opposite directions. Arsene Wenger has weathered early season criticism from the press and his own supporters while guiding the Gunners to a near-perfect start. David Moyes has inherited the reigning Premier League champions from Sir Alex Ferguson and has slowly navigated the club through a stormy start to the season. While the Gunners have looked dominant, United has been inconsistent yet efficient over the past eight matches.
The Red Devils enter Super Sunday unbeaten in eight games. They have made the best of a relatively easy fixture list over the past several weeks. Their only tests have come against Premier League surprise package Southampton and Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk (United drew both of these matches).
United’s early season performances have been uninspiring for their fans. The questions about David Moyes’ ability to manage the club have died down in recent weeks. The focus has turned more towards the players and their production. Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj have been the stars of the early season, while the rest of the players have been inconsistent or underachieved.
Rio Ferdinand has challenged his teammates to step up. “I don’t think we’ve shown ourselves this season on a consistent basis, [and] not just in the big games,” Ferdinand said. “It is time to start putting our foot on the pedal now and motor on. We have to do that if we want to remain in contention to win the league. To do that, we have to get points on the board and that’s what we are aiming to do”
He concluded his thoughts: “Arsenal are in a good vein of form at the moment. They are the team to catch. We have to make sure we are right and ready for the challenge.”
The club’s inactivity during the transfer window has only highlighted the deficiencies United has in the midfield and on defense. At times this season, United’s midfield has been dominated by average opponents while their defense has looked disorganized and continually leaks goals.
The return of the Rio Ferdinand/Nemanja Vidic pairing on defense was a major boost for the club. The stability and leadership provided by the veteran center backs cannot be underestimated. The pair were able to organize the team and United was rarely tested during their Champions League match against Real Sociedad this week.
Despite their inconsistency, United will enter the contest on Sunday full of confidence. Their last home match was a 4-0 win over Norwich City in the Capital One Cup. A few days prior to that, the Red Devils battled from behind to beat Stoke City 3-2 in what many supporters consider the first “Moyes’ Time” victory.
Leading up to the ‘Super Sunday’ match with the Gunners, Wayne Rooney lit a fuse on the explosive encounter by stating his feeling on Arsenal and their title-winning capabilities. “We’ve seen before that they’ve been in the top two until February or March and then faded away,” Rooney said. “They are doing brilliantly at the minute, so it’s down to them to try and stay there and us to catch them.” He went on to say, “We’ll have to wait and see where Arsenal is in March.”
For Manchester United, Sunday’s match against Arsenal has tremendous meaning. It is a chance to cut Arsenal down to five points after their flying start. Past United clubs have relished these kinds of opportunities. Now is this squad’s (and David Moyes’) chance to collect a notable win of their own. Should they secure victory against Arsenal, it might not only be the springboard to United’s title challenge, but it could galvanize the club after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Arsenal is coming off one of the best results (if not the best) in club history.
Former Red Devil captain Gary Neville thinks Arsenal is the true front runner for the Premier League title following their display in Germany this week. He told Sky Sports: “We’ve always stopped short of saying this is the ‘real thing’ with Arsenal as we’ve got to provide balance, but we can start now.” He continued, “We’ve seen so many times in the last couple of years the same players disappoint and fall apart – but all the questions have been answered. They are going to Old Trafford on Sunday and if they come through that then you can say they’ve come through the period that everybody would say they would fade.”
The change in the Gunners has been their ability to defend. In the past few seasons, this is something Arsenal has not done consistently. They were always a threat going forward, but the back four was ragged and prone to costly mistakes. It’s one thing for Arsenal to walk into Borussia Dortmund and beat the German club; it’s another thing for them to leave with a clean sheet. That is a monumental accomplishment for any club.
Neville continued his evaluation: “We’ve lambasted them [Arsenal’s defense] at times over the last two years. But these are the same players – they’re just performing to the standards. They’ve got to keep that back four fit and if they lose players there then they’ve got problems. But they are well drilled, have a good system and Mikel Arteta looks like he can play as a holding midfielder. It’s a real achievement what they’ve done against Dortmund.”
Undeniably, the strength of Arsenal continues to be their midfield play (13 of their 22 Premier League goals have come from this position). Olivier Giroud has given the Gunners consistent production from the striker position, but the play of Aaron Ramsey has stood out in the early stages of the season (6 goals in the BPL, 13 in all competitions).
Despite Ramsey’s fantastic form, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has downplayed talk that the midfielder should be called one of the best players in Europe: “I don’t like this kind of conclusion. Aaron Ramsey is a very strong player and plays with a lot dedication, desire and focus to improve, and that is most important,” he said.
“How much do I rate him? I think I have shown that in the past, when he was hugely criticized I always played him. That shows you how much I admire him and how much I think he is a great player.”
The manager also revealed that midfielders Matthieu Flamini and Jack Wilshere have returned to training and could very well feature in the match at Old Trafford.
There also remains the storyline of Robin van Persie. The former Gunner left the club for Manchester United last season because he wanted to “win trophies”. The Dutchman finally got that trophy during his first season with the Red Devils. But Arsenal supporters have found it hard to forgive the player who openly stated he would never leave their club to win trophies with another.
In 2011, while still at Arsenal, van Persie said this: “The bottom line is that I want to win trophies with Arsenal, not with anybody else. I know you can win trophies in many countries and in many ways, but I want to do that in our way and in an Arsenal shirt.” He continued, “I’m sure I could win things at another team in another country, but would it feel like our trophy, my trophy? I’m not sure it would. Anything we win here will come from the heart and that’s what I want.”
Arsene Wenger still finds it awkward seeing the Dutch striker in a United uniform: “Of course it’s strange because for me he is an Arsenal man,” Wenger said. “I took him when he was a very, very young player. We have gone together through very difficult periods and he became a world-class player and for me he is an Arsenal player.”
Upon his return to the Emirates last season, van Persie was heavily booed by the home supporters. United defender Patrice Evra voiced his displeasure with the Gunners’ supporters and stated that he believed van Persie was hurt by the hatred. Arsenal supporters who are traveling to Old Trafford on Sunday are hoping their club will inflict some more pain on to the Dutchman.
There is no question that the atmosphere at Old Trafford on Sunday will be electrified. Every seat of the massive stadium will be filled and both supporters will be in full voice.
For United fans, this match represents a chance for their club to re-establish itself as a top four and Premier League title contender. While Arsenal supporters are hoping their Gunners will cap off a spectacular week by knocking off the reigning champions, securing their place as front runners for a championship, and showing their former striker what he left behind.
Arsenal will also be looking to improve their record at Old Trafford. In 21 Premier League encounters at the Theatre of Dreams, the Gunners have won three, drawn five and lost thirteen. And Arsenal’s three wins came by a slim 1-0 score line.
But that record was accumulated while United were managed by Sir Alex Ferguson. David Moyes’ has only recorded three wins in his 23 league encounters with Arsenal. Of course, the former Everton manager had less at his disposal while he was in charge of the Merseyside club.
In the past, matches such as these have been built up by the media and fans only to end with a deflating result. But there is something in the air around this match. It doesn’t have the same feel as past encounters.
Arsene Wenger is cautiously optimistic heading into the contest and he has every reason to be after his club’s performance this week. “I just hope that it strengthens the belief of my team that we can put another great performance in,” Wenger said. “You know we have another massive game on Sunday, and we want that kind of performance again.”
Rio Ferdinand expressed his club’s expectations heading into the match: “Nothing changes – we expect to win every game we play at home.”
Both of these clubs have something to prove. And three points would be an enormous boost to their campaigns.
Programming alert: The game will be shown live on US TV at 11am ET on Sunday on NBC Sports Network.