Mind games alive and well as Arsene Wenger plays on Alex Ferguson factor
Victory would lay down biggest marker that Arsenal title challenge is serious
Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey after scoring Arsenal’s goal against Borussia Dortmund with midfielder Mesut Ozil.
Arsene Wenger talked like a man who seemed to have forgotten he and Alex Ferguson were supposed to have called a ceasefire. What was the difference, he was asked, now Ferguson was no longer in the Manchester United dugout? Arsenal’s manager could not resist the temptation. “That’s a question you shouldn’t ask me but the referees,” he said.
By that stage he had already suggested Rene Meulensteen, one of Ferguson’s coaches, had tapped up Robin van Persie, a player he still regards very much as “an Arsenal man”.
Now he tried to explain how United would be affected without the Ferguson factor, and the number of points they might lose as a direct result. “Every year there is a company that makes a league table of what it would be like without the referees’ mistakes. So check that. Ask the referees. If I had a good sense of humour, I would tell you the difference.”
His next reference to Old Trafford, reflecting on the Ferguson era, was thick with sarcasm. “I think the referees were absolutely relaxed and happy to go there.”
It was the kind of line that used to be synonymous with these fixtures and perhaps it told us something about Wenger’s mind-set that he was willing, virtually unprompted, to return to the days when every United-Arsenal game was preceded with allegation and counter-allegation.
Shortly beforehand he had been asked whether Arsenal, in the previous few years, had gone to Old Trafford with more fear than confidence.
“A little bit, yes,” he replied. But not any longer, with a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League, eight clear of David Moyes’s team and coming off a week in which they won at the home of Borussia Dortmund, last season’s Champions League finalists.
Position of strength
Wenger’s throwback nibble at United comes with the Arsenal manager in a new position of strength. It felt premeditated. He was smiling, knowingly, as he said it and, at times, it seemed like a man challenging to be alpha male now Ferguson was not around. In other moments Wenger strayed dangerously close to breaching the FA’s rules forbidding managers from talking about referees before games.
His team have won only one of their last 11 encounters on United’s ground. They have had more defeats at Old Trafford than anywhere else in the Premier League era and, among all the indignities Wenger has suffered in recent years, the 8-2 walloping in August 2011 will always be the nadir.
“Their heaviest defeat since 1896, when they lost 8-0 to Loughborough Town,” as Ferguson helpfully points out in his autobiography.
“It could have been 20. It actually reached the point where I felt – please, no more goals. It was a humiliation for Arsene. The climate at Arsenal was hardly serene to begin with. But we played some fantastic football that day. With the missed chances on either side, it might have been 12-4 or 12-5.”
Yet Arsenal now, compared to then, are barely recognisable. “We rush less, we do not panic,” Wenger said. “We believe we can get a result on Sunday. We go there like we go everywhere, to control the game and to win the game. Every season we have done well, winning the league, we have always won at Old Trafford.”