The last time Arsenal and Manchester United faced each other with both clubs outside the top four of the Premier League was 16 years ago, and to give you a historical perspective on that Sunday at Highbury in September 1998, the first goal was scored by Tony Adams, whose statue now stands outside the Emirates Stadium.
In fact, the league table at the start of the day was an anomaly. Aston Villa were top, Derby County second and in fourth place behind Liverpool were Wimbledon. United were eighth, having played two fewer games, and Arsenal were 10th. By the end of the season, United would be Premier League and European champions, Arsenal came second by a point and, as far as English football was concerned, the natural order had been restored.
How different to this afternoon at the Emirates where, on the back of a 10-year decline, Arsène Wenger finds his old rivals in the doldrums alongside him. This fixture is now sixth place against seventh, the position occupied by United, with no guarantees that either club is going to find itself immediately restored to past glories.
Whether this game is still anything like as important as it was once was the first question put to Wenger yesterday at London Colney, Arsenal’s training ground, and he put a brave face on it. “Yes, of course it is. I would say even more so because the two teams are running after a good record again to try to climb up the table in the Premier League and it makes it a very important game.”
It has been a mismatch for years, with Arsenal winning just one of the last 14 games against United. Arguably David Moyes’s best result as United manager was the 1-0 victory over Arsenal last November. Wenger’s team last beat United in May 2011 and they were not even able to register a win over United when the latter were at their lowest ebb. The only difference last season was that United’s eventual decline was steeper than Arsenal’s has been under Wenger.
The days when Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira snarled at one another in the Highbury tunnel are gone. Now those two make moody documentaries about the old days and debate the relative merits of Ashley Cole and Denis Irwin while the rest of us try to imagine Mikel Arteta and Ander Herrera squaring up.
Naturally, today the focus will be on Danny Welbeck, the United academy boy acquired by Wenger in August whose hamstring problem is not thought to be serious enough to rule him out of the game. But judging by the mood of the Arsenal manager, it is more the freshness of Alexis Sanchez that concerns him after the Chilean striker played and scored in two internationals against Venezuela and Uruguay over the international week, returning to London in the early hours of Thursday.
Sanchez is the big hitter in this Arsenal team, with seven goals in his last six games. Does it look like he is tired? “Unfortunately,” Wenger said. “It’s a concern, of course. He looked a bit jaded just before he went and I will have to check him. Don’t ask him the question [about whether he is ready to play] because he will say he’s perfect.”
Asked whether he had spoken to the Chile coach, Jorge Sampaoli, about an equitable way of deploying Sanchez, Wenger was pretty uncompromising. “No. I don’t even know him.”
As for Welbeck, it took Wenger about 30 seconds to mention him in the same breath as Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo. Henry, he reminded us, was just 23 in his first season at Arsenal in 1999, the same age Welbeck is now. The Ronaldo point came when Wenger was asked to consider whether Welbeck would be not be used to his strengths playing on the wing once Olivier Giroud is back to full fitness.
“I think you have players who play on the flanks who score goals. I don’t think that will stop him from scoring. He had chances the other night when he played on the left. With his pace, Ronaldo played all his life on the flanks and scored more goals than games he played. I don’t think that will stop him. What was a problem for him [at United] was to play.
“Recently we played 4-4-2 with Sanchez and him up front and in some games you adapt. He is adaptable, the modern player is. Sanchez can play wide left and wide right as well as through the middle. Welbeck as well. It is so important on the flanks to have pace and work-rate. In some games you have to put them there because they can absorb the quantity and the quality of the work.”
Both managers have injury lists that have limited their options. For Louis van Gaal it is worse, with Radamel Falcao, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva among the injured. For Wenger, there are fresh concerns about Theo Walcott, who reported with a tight hamstring, as well as Mesut Özil, Arteta, Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Debuchy, Serge Gnabry and Giroud – only fit enough for the bench. The fluctuating fitness of his team is a battle that Wenger seems destined always to be losing. He struggled to mask his irritation at the prospect of his Under-21 eligible players from the England senior team being asked to play in the European Championships next summer.
“If Roy Hodgson wants to do well at Euro 2016, I don’t think it’s in his interest to overload the players during the summer preceding the European championships. The European Under-21 [tournament starts] on 17 June. The [club] training starts at the beginning of July, then you count 50 to 55 games and go to Euro 2016 without any holiday. I don’t think that’s ideal for the preparation of the English European campaign.”
When you consider how far ahead Wenger plans, it is a wonder his injury problems are as bad as they are. Yet it is typical of the Arsenal of 2014 that they find themselves in this position. United come to north London depleted and vulnerable, but there is no guarantee that Wenger’s side will have the wherewithal to take advantage.