Premier league (Sunday)
Man United Vs Arsenal 5:30pm
Manchester United play Arsenal this weekend in Arsene Wenger’s final trip to Old Trafford but he has not been a threat there in 10 years.
Arsene Wenger was dubbed Inspector Clouseau by some of the Arsenal players upon his arrival in London in 1996 and Alex Ferguson occupied the role of Inspector Dreyfus, vexed by his tormentor.
“He’s a novice and he should keep his opinions to Japanese football,” Ferguson spat off camera. On camera, he emphasised ‘Japan’ as if all Wenger would bring to English football was karaoke expertise.
Amid the numerous paeans to Wenger last week you will have come across some of Ferguson’s greatest hits. “They say he [Wenger]’s an intelligent man, right?” Ferguson asked in 2003. “Speaks five languages. I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.” That was an unnamed trialist’s 15 nano seconds.
The bitterness between Ferguson and Wenger trumped the mutual revulsion of Brian Clough and Don Revie and the tension of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s Clasico fracases. United-Arsenal was so spiteful the Metropolitan Police and government ministers complained about it.
Few managers left Ferguson stumped but Wenger’s ‘everybody thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’ - a retort to Ferguson’s suggestion United played more stylish football than Arsenal - did. Fast forward three years and Wenger could not bring himself to say Ferguson’s name. “I will never answer any questions any more about this man.”
This man, once Wenger’s ‘foe’, heralded him as a ‘friend’ on Friday. Ferguson’s ode was a reminder of how irrelevant Arsenal have become to United. Jose Mourinho, who reputedly vowed to ‘break Wenger’s face’, is hopeful of striking up a friendship with his patsy. This is a man who taunted Wenger for being a ‘voyeur’ and a ‘specialist in failure’, who pushed Wenger into pushing back - literally.
Arsenal have finished above United in the last three seasons but have never had an air of superiority. Post-Ferguson, Arsenal lost to a defence of Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair in 2014 as well as a backline of Guillermo Varela, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo in Marcus Rashford’s Premier League debut. In 2011, a midfield quartet of the Da Silvas, Darron Gibson and John O’Shea overcame Arsenal’s aesthetes.
Certain United supporters will likely put their hands together as he approaches the Stretford End tunnel one last time on Sunday. Ferguson may even make a presentation. Arsenal have not worried him for a decade.
“They had players missing, obviously,” Ferguson wrote of the August 2011 8-2 annihilation. “And were not the same without [Cesc] Fabregas and [Samir] Nasri. For that reason I had discounted Arsenal as title challengers. I felt please, no more goals. It was a humiliation for Arsene.” Ferguson pitying Arsenal seemed about as likely as a 14-year title drought when the Invincibles attained immortality.
It is endemic of Wenger’s decline that Arsenal have not secured three points at Old Trafford since September 2006. In Ferguson’s second autobiography, a whole chapter is dedicated to his tussles with Wenger’s Arsenal and outlined the formula to counter the Vincibles.
“In later years we learned more about Arsenal’s thinking,” Ferguson reflected. “Arsene had a template of how he sees his players and the way they play. We didn’t need to win the ball against Arsenal, we needed to intercept it. You need good players who can intercept.
“We worked out that when the ball was played into Fabregas with his back to goal, he would turn it round the corner and meet the return pass.” Ferguson exposed Arsenal’s ‘soft centre’ and few teams looked more authoritative at the Emirates Stadium than Ferguson’s United.
Ferguson and Wenger’s entente cordiale was effectively confirmed at a League Managers’ Association dinner in September 2008. There they were, clad in tuxedos, sat side-by-side, laughing and joking like Morecambe and Wise. This was football’s version of Trump and Kim-Jong Un rubbing shoulders.