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
Sunday, unmistakably, is one of those occasions that will count for much more than just three points.
“One of the benchmark games . . . a game when you can judge how strong you really are.” To win, he is acutely aware, would lay down the biggest marker yet that Arsenal’s title challenge has to be taken seriously.
Wenger clearly wants to see whether opposing teams will get the raw deal at Old Trafford that he suspected was always the case in the Ferguson years. He also cited Ashley Young as a player he wanted the referee to monitor closely.
“In England people try to cheat the referee and try to dive. They get a quick, negative reaction from the press and that’s the best way to get it out of the game, whether it’s Ashley Young or one of my players. I am happy that the press responds.”
Later Wenger expressed another suspicion that United might resort to overly physical tactics if Moyes suspected Arsenal were the superior side. “It’s down to the referee to make the right decisions, to protect the players and to give the free-kicks you deserve,” he said.
At Old Trafford, he continued, it was not just the manager’s influence that could influence decisions. “The pressure comes from the crowd as well. They go for every ball and put the referee under pressure. That happens more in the north than in the south.
“You know when you go to Sunderland the crowd plays every ball. When you go to Everton the crowd plays every ball. Then in London the crowd is a bit more relaxed.”
No doubt there is a chance he might bump into Ferguson anyway. He was looking forward to it, he said, and he sounded as if he might even mean it.
“It’s easier now, a bit more pacific. We don’t fight against each other now. We meet each other only at the (Uefa) managers’ meetings and speak about how we can improve football, not how Manchester United can beat Arsenal, or how Arsenal can beat Man United. So, of course, it will be a bit more peaceful and serene.”
Yet the impression here is they will always be the neighbours arguing over the garden fence about who has the tidier lawn. Ferguson’s account of the Van Persie transfer, as told in his book, is that it was his telephone call, direct to Wenger, that swung the deal.
“Honestly, what convinced me in our talks was only his number (transfer fee),” Wenger replied. “It was the conversations I had with Robin that convinced me, not Alex Ferguson.”
But there was more to it than that, he added. “Robin has been convinced by the Dutch coach (Meulensteen) who was at Manchester United. That played a big part.” Nobody from Old Trafford should have been speaking to Van Persie.
Wenger sounded like a man who would be telling his players one thing: to find out if it were true, post-Ferguson, that Old Trafford was no longer such a formidable venue.