Manchester United’s 4-2 win at Watford on Tuesday night was probably the best I’ve seen them play this season.
They were purposeful and powerful, making the most of the abundance of pace and physicality in the team and, in the form they showed at Vicarage Road, the attacking trio of Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard would be a test for any defence. Overall, this was a United team playing with a greater sense of freedom than we’re accustomed to seeing this season, and it was all the more impressive because they were up against a Watford side which has been doing so well.
With all that in mind, I went to see Arsenal against Huddersfield on Wednesday and, for 65 minutes, I was thinking that United would simply be too powerful and too fast to be contained at the Emirates today, but then Wednesday’s game was utterly transformed by the home side scoring three goals in four minutes and, as Arsenal went up through the gears, their quick one-touch passing, coupled with the quicksilver movement of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, made me think that today’s game could be much more of a contest.
Striker Alexandre Lacazette’s absence is a blow, but Arsenal do have an able replacement in Olivier Giroud who, physically, will be able to match what Manchester United have at the back. A big plus for Arsenal’s chances would be the absence of Nemanja Matic, who is rated doubtful for today’s game. In midfield, United would definitely have the upper hand with Paul Pogba and Matic, but it’s the latter who is mainly charged with protecting a defence which, as we saw in the Watford game, can struggle in the face of slick passing and good movement. And Arsenal certainly have the players to produce that.
It will be interesting to see how Jose Mourinho approaches this evening’s game. If he decides his team should go for it and make a statement with their football, I think they could really profit, but if opts to sit back and play on the counter, Ozil, in the form he’s currently showing, and Sanchez, could make him pay for that mistake.
One thing is for sure: Today will again bring sharply into focus the fascinating contrasts in the careers of Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, their personalities and football philosophies.
Wenger has found himself under an unforgiving spotlight at Arsenal for a number of years, with unrest and division among the fans about his position at the club. When you go to the Emirates, there’s always a sense that his critics among the supporters are just waiting for something to go wrong so they can vent their feelings again, but Arsenal, — with 12 consecutive wins at home — haven’t given them that opportunity of late.
My own view is that even if Wenger isn’t hitting the heights he reached when Arsenal were winning league titles, he is still doing a perfectly good job job when you take into account the madness which is going on at so many other Premier League clubs and the huge money being spent in a bid to achieve what he achieved year in and year out.
In a way, you could say he’s paying a price for his own success, creating a rod for his own back with the outstanding teams he put together in his first 10 years at the club.
With the arrival of mega-rich clubs, such as Manchester City and Chelsea, it has become a lot harder for Wenger to challenge for the title, let alone win it.
However, what he has done is create a culture and a style at the club which means that when people think of Arsenal, they think of talented players, football that is pleasing on the eye and matches which are won through skill more than anything else.
It’s an identity similar to that which Rinus Michels brought to Barcelona and, from him and Johan Cruyff onwards, it’s one which remains an essential part of Barca’s DNA to this day. As a result, there are only certain kinds of managers and coaches who could work at the Nou Camp, because the club and its supporters demand that whoever is at the helm remains true to that tradition.
Wenger has created something similar at Arsenal, but we’re at a point in the club’s history where the lack of recent success means many are far from convinced that this is the right road to stay on, but perhaps people should be careful what they wish for, because I do worry about what will happen to Arsenal when Wenger does eventually step down. For a warning from history in that respect, you only have to look at the visitors to the Emirates today.
At Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho came into a club which, in its modern incarnation, was founded on the idea that trophies could be won playing a brand of football that had style and swagger. Matt Busby was the architect of what became known as ‘the United way’, culminating in the European Cup triumph of 1968, but when a figure of such towering influence leaves a club — as Wenger will some day l eave Arsenal – it is a huge challenge to find a suitable replacement.
In the years when I was playing against United, they went through a sequence of managers who were unable to emulate what Busby had achieved. It wasn’t until they hired Alex Ferguson that United began to regain their greatness. Even then, there was a period of a couple of seasons when the new manager was under pressure before success finally began to flow.
However, Ferguson, like Busby, always had a clear idea of what he was about, as evidenced by the fact that, when United did begin to win things, it wasn’t just down to big money signings. From the moment Ferguson set foot in Old Trafford, he made overhauling the club’s youth system a priority and, in due course, we all saw what rich dividends that nurturing would pay, with the emergence of an outstanding crop of young players, who went on to help United become a dominant force in English and European football.
However, as happened after Busby left the club, United have struggled to find a manager to fill Ferguson’s boots. Like Real Madrid and Barcelona, United are a club who expect to win the most prestigious trophies in the game and it’s clear now that, after a few fallow years, the hierarchy at Old Trafford are desperate to claim a league or Champions League again.
And so they have turned to Mourinho, a serial winner, yes, but hardly a respecter of tradition. Here is a manager who never stays at a club for more than a few years, before moving on and I have a feeling that it will be the same at Manchester United: He’s there for the short-term, the quick fix and, as a result, he’s under pressure to deliver this season. He might be saying in public that it’s too early for him to win the League or the Champions League but, ultimately, that’s what he is going to be judged on at United. If he doesn’t do it this season, he will certainly be expected to do it next year. You could say that United have put all their eggs in the Mourinho basket and it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.
The contrast between the two managers and where their respective clubs are at means there’s a lot more to today’s game than just the 90 minutes. If Arsenal win, Wenger’s stock will rise again. If Mourinho prevails, it means United can maintain their pursuit of Manchester City.
Also, unless City have a complete collapse, which appears highly unlikely, United are now the only team with a realistic chance of challenging them for the title.
Their respective fortunes may have changed but, as ever when these two great clubs meet, the stakes are high.