x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Wenger is back on Ferguson's radar

Sir Alex Ferguson's praise for the Frenchman last season is on hold as Arsenal seem a threat to the Premier League title.

United's Wayne Rooney, right, and Arsenal's Bacary Sagna battle at Old Trafford last season.
United's Wayne Rooney, right, and Arsenal's Bacary Sagna battle at Old Trafford last season.

Relations have thawed to the extent that there is something of a mutual admiration society. Each has come to respect the other for his enduring commitment to the job as much as his considerable achievements. By developing a succession of teams, each using their manager's idiosyncratic blueprint, they stand apart from all of their peers.

Yet Arsene Wenger knows Sir Alex Ferguson's praise is conditional on one thing: Arsenal not challenging Manchester United. Last year, the Scot named the Frenchman among the three Premier League managers he rates highest: David Moyes and Martin O'Neill were the others. All were sufficiently distanced not to be rivals for his crown. While United versus Arsenal has been the division's defining rivalry for much of the Premier League era, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have supplanted the Gunners as Ferguson's premier enemies. Hence a friendship of sorts with Wenger.

Now, however, Arsenal have won four games out of four, scoring 15 goals and conceding three, two of which were largely irrelevant consolation strikes. It is a typically young side, but this is the Arsenal of old: at their finest, Wenger's teams have always allied sheer style with an appeal to statisticians. Indeed, five years ago the Invincibles went 49 league games unbeaten before arriving at Old Trafford.

No such moniker has been applied to the current crop, and nor could it be for some time. Once Arsenal were the unbeatable side, now they are merely unforeseen challengers. Wenger and Ferguson derive a mutual sense of satisfaction from overcoming obstacles. In the Frenchman's case, they have been considerable: the summer sales of Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, the injuries that have prevented Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Samir Nasri from appearing this season and, perhaps, the hamstring problem that could rule out Cesc Fabregas today.

A team has been recalibrated for the captain, the formation tweaked to a 4-3-3 that bears distinct similarities with United's shape for much of the past two seasons. Deprive Arsenal of their boyish alpha male in midfield, however, and fielding a trio there looks like opting for safety in numbers. Wenger, though, would disagree. He is urging his side to replicate their approach in the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in May, rather than the previous month's European defeat there. "In the Champions League we were too passive but in the league game we went forward more. It is more mental than tactical," he said.

Arsenal last won at Old Trafford three years ago when Fabregas reigned supreme; since then United have often surrounded and stifled Arsenal's technicians. So the midfield is of pivotal importance, yet it may also be the area of greatest uncertainty for the two managers. With Aaron Ramsey another doubt, injuries are Wenger's impediment. Ferguson's choices add an element of mystery at Old Trafford. The Scot made six changes for United's second Premier League game of the season, at Burnley, and a further seven for the third, at Wigan. Constant rotation suggests only Darren Fletcher is assured of a start tonight, though there is a considerable case for Anderson.

It is significant, too, who Ferguson selects at right-back, a position four different players have occupied in the first four fixtures. Tonight's choice will be charged with subduing Andrey Arshavin. A similarly tough task awaits Arsenal's latest recruit. Thomas Vermaelen said: "It will be my first time playing against Wayne Rooney. We will see how it goes but I am not nervous." Two months in London have acquainted him with the importance of the game. He added: "Saturday is special. Manchester United is the biggest game of the season for us."

The Belgian is that rarity, a big buy from Wenger. The Frenchman's economics degree is not required to calculate that these are the two clubs with the largest profits in the transfer window. Arsenal's net gains, at this stage, seem to go beyond the bank balance. While Wenger is accustomed to being in the black, and Ferguson in the red, more unites than divides the two great rivals now. Manchester City have the economic advantage, but if the Scot's fondness for the Frenchman is a new take on the Auld Alliance, an Arsenal victory tonight, or a title challenge from North London, would surely signal the end of the entente cordiale.

rjolly@thenational.ae Manchester United v Arsenal, KO 8.30pm, Showsports 1 & 2