The needle been missing from the Manchester United – Arsenal fixture in recent years. Certainly Arsenal’s comparative lack of success over the past five years and then Jose Mourinho’s introduction to English football has taken the edge off the bickering between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger. Patrice Evra just pulled out the whetstone.
Indeed, Evra’s words, bordering on the line between fact and disrespect, are sure to wind up the London side on the eve of Monday night’s fixture between the two sides. Claiming that Arsenal will not winning the title this season, Evra goes on to describe the Londoners as a club in crisis.
“Arsenal is a training centre. I watch them play and enjoy it but will they win the title? That’s what people remember,” Evra said.
“Arsenal are a great club but it has been five years since they won anything and that for me is a crisis. We could lose to them on the 13th but then what? There is nothing, there will be no trophy, nothing.”
Of course, there is little in Evra’s words that is untrue. Arsenal’s much-lauded style has brought no conspicuous success in recent seasons, while the side’s soft-underbelly is repeatedly exposed against top sides home and abroad. That Arsenal’s weaknesses come to the fore against middle ranked sides too has consistently undermined everything Wenger has worked towards with his “young” side.
Like his team, Wenger’s excuses never seem to grow old.
Yet, this season a steeliness appears to have enveloped the Emirates club, with former Red Phil Neville identifying Arsenal’s new propensity to fend off the Premier League’s bullies. But in gaining steel, Arsenal appears to have lost consistency. Losses to Braga, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion, present a case in point.
Wenger, no less myopic than the day he walked into Highbury a little more than 14 years ago, reacted to Evra’s jibe with more restraint than is sometimes the case.
“He gave you some good stuff to make it all hot before the game,” the Arsenal manager told the media today.
“We are guided by the way we want to play football and not by the statements of anybody who plays against us.
“Personally, I believe if you are a big player you always respect your opponent and that is what we try to do.
“We do not want to go into any unneeded talking before a game like that. We want to focus on the way we want to play and ignore any provocation before a game.
“We are motivated by the desire to win the game and by the quality of the football we want to play.”
But in recent meetings United’s ability to break quickly has brought emphatic victories at the Emirates in both domestic and European football. That Ferguson’s side also ground out a 2-1 victory much against the run of play at Old Trafford last August simply proved the old adage that United can win when playing badly.
Arsenal rarely does.
It is, in effect, Evra’s point. That is no value criticising Arsenal’s playing style; Wenger’s defensive response about his team’s football quality misses the point. Teams can and do win with style as Barcelona emphatically demonstrated against the Gunners in last season’s Champions League.
Sometimes even the best need an edge.
Indeed, while United has rarely sparked into life this season as Ferguson’s squad deteriorates in quality, between 2007 and 2009 the Reds won with both style and – importantly – no little grit.
On Monday night United is likely to need plenty of the latter. Fans seek some of the former too; they are not and have never been mutually exclusive.
Should Wenger ever discover this secret Arsenal might actually prove Evra wrong. From this distance, it seems some way off.
Not that Wenger’s side is even that young. The starting 11 that faced Partizan Belgrade during the week averaged around 25. Youthful but not without experience either.
Still, the challenge coming from Arsenal this season, with Wenger’s side currently top of the Premier League, might at least spark a revival in the edge between the sides. At its height the war between Wenger and Ferguson was hugely entertaining, although perhaps not always for Sir Alex who famously ended on encounter victorious but covered in pizza.
Evra has fired the first shot across the bows. How United fans will enjoy any forthcoming Ferguson volley.