It may not be halfway through the Premier League campaign yet, but it feels like a crucial weekend. Not just in the championship race, but in the old order’s efforts to finally reestablish itself.
There are two major derbies: Manchester United go home to Manchester City and Arsenal go to Tottenham Hotspur. Often these fixture schedules are overrated. No need to exaggerate this time.
If United win at lunch Saturday, they are just one point behind second-placed City; If that happens and Arsenal win the next day, Mikel Arteta’s team will be at the top of the table by eight points and nine points ahead of United.
Deliciously Arsenal will host United at the Emirates next Sunday. Since when would this be the first encounter between the two clubs in a convincingly title fight?
Probably since November 2007 when they were locked at the top of the table and Arsenal drew 2-2 over an injury time equalizer claim. They peaked at Christmas, but fell behind on Boxing Day and finished third after collapsing with Eduardo’s horrific leg break against Birmingham City in March; United went on to win the league. It is noteworthy that this happened more than 15 years ago.
Except that one? It was probably October 2004 – when Arsenal were at Old Trafford, United broke out on their 49-game unbeaten run and Cesc Fabregas threw pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson and then it all started in the tunnel.
That season also brought the end of the United / Arsenal duo to become the Premier League champions. Neither of them won the league. For nine consecutive seasons between 1996 and 2004, United (with six wins) and Arsenal (with three wins) monopolized the title, and it took the expense of Roman Abramovich and the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea to finish it in 2004-05.
While United recovered magnificently until Ferguson retired, Arsenal had of course not won the title since 2004 and suffered a gradual, painful decline under Arsene Wenger and from far behind.
Roy Keane once said, “I had a lot of hate for Arsenal.” “As I prepare to fight Arsenal, I can’t think of another word. Hate was the word.
It was mutual.
But in reality, it’s been almost overshadowed for the past ten years or more. Density dissipated. There were bigger concerns. City eclipsed United; Arsenal lagged behind Tottenham. Both live on past victories. In the last five years, two clubs have won a trophy – Arsenal’s FA Cup victory in 2020 where they finished eighth in Arteta’s first season, behind Wolverhampton Wanderers and two points ahead of Sheffield United. Most of the time they weren’t even seen as related.
The consolation for Arsenal was that, despite the Spurs finishing St Totteringham Day – the ‘holiday’ to mark the date when the league became mathematically impossible to finish above their north London neighbors – they had not won any silverware.
The Spurs came particularly agonizingly close under Mauricio Pochettino to reach the Champions League Final in 2019, but still held the first trophy since 2008 away from them. Instead, their only consolation has been to finish above Arsenal in the league six times in a row, after breaking a 22-year streak by playing second fiddle. But in the bigger picture, all this feels like a local squabble away from the top table.
So this weekend could be very important. In reality, the point is not that United and Arsenal are re-establishing their rivalry and proximity to where they are at the table, which is essentially a product of the Premier League era, but re-establishing themselves.
While United won’t go to the derbies as favourites – Pep Guardiola has won six of his nine matches at Old Trafford – there are solid grounds for optimism. Since City embarrased them 6-3 at Etihad four months ago, Erik ten Hag’s side has won 15 times over Aston Villa, drawn twice and lost only once. They have won their last eight matches in all competitions.
For the first time since Ferguson, a manager has a sense of focus, hunger, and confidence coming back. United tried to convince themselves that this was the case for Mourinho, who won the Europa League and League Cup and finished second, but it had no real substance and turned out to be an expensive and damaging illusion.
There’s a greater fit with Ten Hag, which handles off-the-court issues as brilliantly as it does about it, like the expulsion of Cristiano Ronaldo. After falling asleep and missing a team meeting, Marcus Rashford disciplined him by dropping him, followed by the striker’s return to score the Wolves the winning goal. It had the Ferguson touch for United fans.
Even at Ten Hag’s camp, there were concerns that the job might be too big for him and he might struggle to get into this field, but he quickly learned.
As in Arteta. It’s surprising to think that this is the 40-year-old’s first job, as he and sporting director Edu cleverly transformed Arsenal’s squad into a young, dynamic team that will only get better. They look like they’re going to stay here, even if being in the title race this season with the goal in the top four is a fantastic bonus. Being five points clear is even more.
The tests will come now. After the Spurs and United Arsenal faced off against City in the FA Cup, and how that will affect the losers, it could be important before they play each other in the league on February 15. If we accept that Newcastle United are on the sidelines for the title and whoever finishes above City wins it, United might as well be bringing themselves back into the conversation. An old rivalry is reviving.