Arsenal versus Manchester United was once the Premier League’s most exhilarating, frenetic and important rivalry. The matches were often title deciders, and in a six-year period around the turn of the century, this battle encapsulated the reason the Premier League became such a major force. Now, somewhat sadly, both teams are playing catch-up.
Chelsea and Manchester City have won the last two Premier League titles. Arsenal’s wait for the title has been significantly longer than United’s, although they have finished higher in the table both years since United’s triumph in 2012-13. They started this season in roughly the same situation, and we’re still not sure about either side’s title credentials. This weekend’s meeting at the Emirates should offer some answers.
Intriguingly, Arsenal and United currently offer entirely contrasting qualities. In general — and this might be simply a truism — title winners boast both standout individual attackers, and a cohesive overall system, with last season’s Chelsea side a fine example. At the moment, Arsenal have the former, United the latter.
For all the complaints about manager Arsene Wenger not strengthening his side in the summer, Arsenal retain tremendous attacking options. The likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are established performers at the highest level; Santi Cazorla orchestrates play as intelligently as anyone in the league; Theo Walcott was Arsenal’s top goal-scorer in his final season before serious injury and Aaron Ramsey was one of Europe’s most effective midfielders back in 2013-14. With Francis Coquelin’s sudden emergence as a defensive, battling, destructive midfielder just behind them, when on top form, Arsenal’s midfielders and attackers are good enough to launch a serious title challenge.
There’s a problem, though. How can Wenger find a system which gets the best from all six? As covered in greater depth recently, playing this combination has caused problems, in simple terms because all six prefer playing centrally. Sanchez on the left isn’t a huge problem, because the Chilean is versatile enough to play anywhere, but Ramsey has been accommodated out on the right, and clearly dislikes that position.
This isn’t the Arsenal versus Manchester United clash of 2003. You won’t see Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane squaring up; you won’t see Martin Keown jumping on Ruud van Nistelrooy; you won’t see the Neville brothers targeting Jose Reyes. The story here is different: these are two managers who like playing attack-minded football with young, developing players. The way they build their sides, however, is very different.
Michael Cox is the editor of Zonal Marking and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking