They are scrappers who rely on belligerence – we are the better team. – Sir Alex Ferguson after Arsenal won the double at Old Trafford, May 2002.
Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home. – Arsène Wenger, in response to Fergie’s bitter words , May 2002.
Thirteen years ago, May 8th 2002, Arsenal faced a tough-as-nails Manchester United, at Old Trafford, with an unsympathetic referee, and without legends Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. On that day, Arsenal weathered a barrage of boots and wicked tackles before capitalizing on a single mistake in midfield and grabbing the only goal of the game. And it was with that Wiltord goal that Arsenal won the League at Old Trafford.
That was thirteen years ago and the League was vastly different back then: Arsenal’s shirt sponsors were SEGA, the Arsenal crest was their original from 1949, and slide tackles from behind which wiped out a player were barely even considered a foul. See the video below for what I mean by how much times have changed. Half of the contact in this video would be a yellow card these days, the other half would be red.
That Arsenal side which beat Man U at Old Trafford, with just a few changes, went on to become the Invincibles, the team which went 49 games unbeaten and was the greatest Arsenal team the world had ever seen.
It seems like the result of this fixture between United and Arsenal has often been a catalyst for these teams. Sometimes the result sparks a buying spree, sometimes the result changes the way that one team plays, and even this season United’s loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup seemed to galvanize the Red Devils into a great run of form. With Rooney half-boasting:
I’ve always been quite vocal in the dressing room before games and I felt at the time it was right for me, after we’d lost to Arsenal in the cup, to put a few points across to the players which I thought might help the team. I’m not saying that’s why we won the games against Tottenham and Liverpool! [Laughs] But it certainly didn’t cause any harm doing it. It just felt like the right time for me to say something.
With Rooney’s Scouse accent ringing in their ears, you can bet that United will be up for this match. No matter that a Champions League place is secure for both, there is bad blood between these two teams and United will be looking to “set the record straight.”
That record, if you haven’t heard for the 1000th time this week, is that Arsenal have lost 9 of their last 11 matches at Old Trafford and haven’t beaten United in any League game in 7 tries, the last one thanks to an Aaron Ramsey strike in 2011.
And for Arsenal it’s more than just trying to get one over on an old rival or finishing in the top 3. Both of these teams are on track to challenge for the title next season and winning the so-called “mini-League” of top 6 teams is the exact kind of boost that a club needs.
Arsenal have been nearly perfect against the bottom 10 clubs for two years now. But they have tended to be bossed by the bigger clubs and last year Arsenal were dumped out of the title race in spectacular fashion when they were beaten handily by Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal need to send a message that they won’t be dominated by these big clubs any more.
The bad news is that in terms of points in the mini-League, Arsenal haven’t fared much better this season over last. This is the main reason why fans feel like there hasn’t been any progress at the club.
Last season, Arsenal won just 3 of the 10 matches and eared a horrible -10 goal difference. Along the way they handed United their only win of the mini-League thanks to a dreadful performance at Old Trafford.
This season, Arsenal have a much more respectable +1 goal difference owing to Arsene Wenger’s pragmatic approach to games. Wenger has been talking a lot about balance this season and has largely been getting it. Since January, Arsenal have the best defensive record in the League.
In the aftermath of the loss to Swansea on Monday, which ended Arsenal’s 10 match unbeaten run, Arsene Wenger even uttered a phrase that Arsenal fans haven’t heard since 2005: you must ensure first that you do not lose. And I suspect that was a glimpse into the changes that Wenger has been making in the team since last year.
Even if they lose this match, Manchester United are this season’s big winners in the mini-League and United’s Wayne Rooney gave away the secret for their form against big clubs:
I think we’ve been very well prepared going into those games. We put a lot of work and effort into making sure we’re in the right shape and set up in the right way to.
That preparation will no doubt include video of last week’s Arsenal match against Swansea where the Swans played defense first and hit Arsenal late with a header. Arsenal are susceptible to headers this season, 35% of their goals conceded in the League (12/34) have come off headers, and Rooney scored a headed goal in the 2-1 loss in the FA Cup and Swansea’s Gomis scored a header on Monday.
But Man U are also 2nd best in the League at scoring goals in the first 30 minutes, with 22 (Chelsea are first with 24 and Arsenal only have 14). This indicates a team that likes to take the game to the opposition early on. But Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals in the first half of games with just 13. So, it could be a case of furious action in the first 15 minutes leading to little or no reward for either team.
As the match goes on the good news is that Arsenal are 2nd best in the League at scoring late goals, they have 29. Man U only 19. And Man U have the third most defensive errors in the League 29, just one less than Newcastle. But tellingly, they have only allowed 3 goals off those errors. I suspect that’s de Gea saving them — though I can’t use stats to prove that and instead just have to rely on my faulty old perception.
And United also have a somewhat predictable approach to the end game scenario. Fellaini commits more fouls per game than any other player in the final 15 minutes of games. And is 6th in the league in aerial duels with 3 per game in the final 30 minutes of games. Fellaini only averages 4 aerial duels won per game, which shows you that if United need a goal late they will send the Belgian up to play faux center-forward and cause trouble in the Arsenal back line with elbows and afros. Who can forget the earlier match this season where United scored after Fellaini shoved Gibbs over in an aerial duel and United scored when a prone Gibbs kicked his clearance into how own goal?
This match is more than just history. It’s more than the 2002 title game or the ugly transfer of van Persie to a hated rival. This match is the future. Arsenal have turned their season around and have been the best team in the League since January. Arsenal will surely give them a game. And if Arsenal want to be considered title challengers next season they will have to show their mettle in exactly this kind of match.