x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ferguson seems to have method for beating Arsenal

In his first decade, Arsene Wenger had a superior record in their meetings. Not now. The United manager has six wins and a solitary defeat in his last eight encounters with the Frenchman.

Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-1 away last season thanks to their manager's magic combination - tough tackling and swift counter-attacking. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images
Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-1 away last season thanks to their manager's magic combination - tough tackling and swift counter-attacking. Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

The question is one that is perplexing the Premier League: how do you stop Arsenal?

The resurgent title challengers have displayed a self-destructive streak at home but, over recent seasons, there have only been two fail-safe formulas. One involves picking Didier Drogba, which is not an option available to 19 Premier League managers; the other is Sir Alex Ferguson's approach.

In his first decade, Arsene Wenger had a superior record in their meetings. Not now.

Ferguson has six wins and a solitary defeat in his last eight encounters with the Frenchman, testament to a methodology that has confounded the Gunners; marrying quick counter-attacking, to take advantage of Arsenal's willingness to throw men forward, with a commitment to hassling and harrying in the midfield.

The high-energy, high-tempo approach in the centre of the pitch is designed to stifle and subdue, the speedy incursions aimed at exposing Arsenal's Achilles heel. Its efficacy is proved by the number of men in the United ranks who could be deemed Arsenal specialists.

Few managers place such weight on previous encounters by tailoring their team for a specific games. Wenger certainly doesn't. Ferguson, in comparison, has men who are almost guaranteed a game against Arsenal.

There is Ji-sung Park, rarely prolific but a scorer at the Emirates Stadium in the last two seasons, for instance; Nani, whose stunning revival in 2010 began away at Arsenal in January in a match where few even anticipated his selection; Anderson, still celebrated in song at Old Trafford for subduing Cesc Fabregas the first time he faced the Arsenal captain; and Darren Fletcher, arguably the man of the tie in the 2009 Champions League semi-finals that included his unfortunate dismissal. And that is just the midfield alone.

Although Paul Scholes should be fit, then, United could opt to omit him, knowing more vigorous performers can engage in their usual enthusiastic attempt to disrupt Arsenal's passing game. Indeed, while there is an indelible association between Wenger's side and youth, it is worth remembering that, eight years ago, a 16-year-old scored his first league goal against them.

That was Wayne Rooney's bold introduction to the wider world while with Everton. Lacking a strike for United in open play, but with six goals against Arsenal in as many seasons, he is another of the experts in these encounters.

In comparison, Samir Nasri stands alone at the Emirates Stadium: not because of his excellence this season, but because he is the sole member of Wenger's squad to have scored a winner for Arsenal against United.

The fact they have mustered three goals in their last five meetings with United suggest that, at Old Trafford, Arsenal's poetic passing meets with a more prosaic response. The consequence is that what was the defining clash of the season for a decade has become an event to entertain United. It has brought them points as well as a rapprochement that appeared unlikely at one point.

Indeed, for all talk of a mutual respect, sceptics might suggest Ferguson's relationship with Wenger has thawed since the Frenchman stopped beating United. When rivals are bested, friendship becomes more of a possibility for the Scot.

Because while there are reasons to doubt each of the contenders at the Premier League's summit, in this particular fixture, the burden of proof is on Arsenal. United, time and again, have proved they can overcome the Londoners without needing a rethink. For them, Plan A has done for Arsenal.

sports@thenational.ae