It might have been a product of the Premier League, but the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United never felt manufactured. The contention that existed between the two clubs was very much real. English soccer was dominated by the duo for a time. It was the country’s defining fixture.
As soccer’s ultimate manifestation of north versus south, the contest between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger was a fierce one. The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw the two men, and the their respective clubs, clash for every honour going in the English game. Their histories intertwined, so when Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford in 2002, Man Utd responded two years later by ending their record-breaking unbeaten run.
The two clubs will meet once more this weekend, but there is a very different feel to the rivalry now, (if there still exists a rivalry). Ferguson is gone, with Wenger now a figure of fun for some in the English game. The aura that once distinguished the Frenchman has dissipated, although he is still revered as an elder statesman of the Premier League.
While there is always a certain intrigue to a clash between two clubs of such stature, the edge has gone from the game. Don’t expect any pizza to be thrown in the Old Trafford tunnel on Saturday. Given the current character of both teams, we’ll be lucky to even see a late tackle. The fixture has become a little tame.
But there is a symbolism to Saturday’s match. Even in times of Man Utd’s recent struggles, Arsenal have toiled to impose themselves against the Red Devils. With United enduring something of a difficult start to the season, the Gunners can underline how they are the dominant party in the contest between the two clubs.
Of course, there is one factor that could reignite the rivalry between the two clubs. Jose Mourinho is now the Manchester United manager, with the Portuguese making a habit of antagonising Wenger over the years. He has called the Frenchman a “specialist in failure” and a “voyeur,” among other things. Mourinho, in fact, is somewhat obsessed with his Arsenal counterpart.
And so the fixture between Arsenal and Manchester United has been given a sharpened edge. Mourinho has cut a subdued figure this season, struggling to impose his ways and methods on his new club, but it would be far from surprising if he is more like his old self this weekend. Wenger has that effect on him.
“This time it will be Wenger with Mourinho,” Marouane Fellaini said this week, explaining how the rivalry between the two clubs will change under new management. “It is always exciting. It will be a good game, like always. The biggest game, the atmosphere will be there so it’s good. When you see Man United v Arsenal, you don’t need a manager for it to be a big game. So with Mourinho's rivalry with Wenger it will be maybe more of an edge for United’s players.”
The two clubs find themselves on different trajectories right now. Arsenal are perhaps the only member of the so-called top four seemingly certain in their identity as a team. That identity is frequently criticised for being somewhat flawed, but at least they have one. Can Man Utd really say the same? Can any side near the top of the Premier League, with the exception of Spurs, say that?
This November provides a critical juncture for Arsenal. It’s a month that traditionally derails the Gunners, but with just two points currently separating them from the top of the Premier League table, they have the chance to underline that this time things really are different. A win over Manchester United, rivals that came to define their golden era, would do that.