Conquering the ghosts of failures past
Gunners need to beat United to erase fears of another spring collapse
When Roy Keane sat down with Patrick Vieira to record the ITV documentary about their encounters, he talked about the hatred he had felt towards Arsenal in those years when the pair would clash. Keane detailed the psychic energy that the build-up would involve, and said his body would ache in anticipation of what was to come.
All those moments seemed to reach their peak in the Highbury tunnel in 2005, when Keane came down the tunnel looking for Vieira. If both sides want to feel nostalgic they can look back to those days and reflect on how much has changed. United, of course, have much to reflect on, but Arsenal can see similarities between their side as it was transforming then and now.
"They acted as though the rest of the world was meant to sit back and admire their beautiful football," Gary Neville wrote about the Arsenal teams of that era in 2011. "Sorry, count me out. Some of us had a mission to stop them by all legitimate means."
When the Arsenal fans howled with indignation during the fixture against Leicester two weeks ago, it was possible to see that something of this attitude remains, at least in those who support Arsene Wenger's side. Yet Arsenal won that afternoon, which was the only thing that mattered, and they are favourites to win the Premier League.
Victory today would be significant in many ways. When they lost at home to Chelsea in January, Arsenal seemed doomed to make the same mistakes again. A failure to beat a United side which doesn't take a lot of beating would highlight some of the old concerns before a critical North London derby at White Hart Lane next Saturday.
Wenger was downcast on Tuesday night as he reflected on the manner of his side's failure against Barcelona. Most sides will fade against a team which hasn't lost a game since October 3, and there were many like Martin Keown and Keane himself who were ready to praise Arsenal.
They may have had a point in the detail. Arsenal had gone about things the right way for much of the game. If Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had taken his early chance, if Olivier Giroud had been someone other than Olivier Giroud, then maybe it would have been different. As it was, it was just the same. This is the Arsenal story. Things could so easily have been different, if they weren't always so dispiritingly the same.
But even with Arsenal doing what they have done so often before, Barcelona are not the side Wenger's players need to judge themselves against.
The most important competition they can win this year is the Premier League, for many reasons. They may not get a chance as good as this again, and if Wenger's belief in his side is valid - in truth, it sounds no different to the belief he has had in previous teams who let him down - then a triumph this year could be the starting point for a period of success.
Wenger insisted last week that this side was different, but that is not new either. "This is a team that is very hungry, yes," he said. "They want to win and I think they've shown that in the cup in the last two years. This team wants to do well and is very conscientious. We have a job to do to relax them a little bit."
What has changed are his reflections on the teams that failed in the past. In 2011, Arsenal beat Stoke City on February 23 to move within a point of Manchester United. They had beaten Barcelona in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League a week earlier. The following Sunday they had an opportunity to win a trophy when they played Birmingham in the League Cup final. Instead, they lost to a last minute goal and an extraordinary collapse began.
Arsenal won only three more games that season. They ended in fourth place. Naturally, Wenger saw no similarities between this season and five years ago.
"At that time we were losing momentum," he said. "This time it's the opposite. We are chasing and gaining momentum. We had two difficult games recently, but overall the psychological situation is quite different. The mood of some players was more to get the next contract somewhere else than to win the championship because at the time we had to sell our players.
"When we went into April, some of the players were tapped up to go somewhere else, and it was difficult to maintain the focus. That's not the case at the moment."
In 2011, Arsenal lost Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona, while Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri went to Manchester City. Robin Van Persie stayed for one more season before joining Manchester United.
Wenger said that "it was difficult to keep the focus" when a season is unravelling like that, adding: "The psychological situation is different today."
Arsenal have become a club prepared to spend money, but Tuesday night demonstrated that they still lack the truly great players. Mesut Ozil absented himself for much of the game against Barcelona, while the lack of a world-class centre-forward remains a problem.
Wenger says the image of Arsenal as a team that fades in the spring isn't backed up by statistics, but it is backed up by the memory of 2011 and 2008, when a draw at Birmingham and William Gallas's reaction seemed to sum up their problems. "We were very young at that time," Wenger pointed out.
A victory today and they could face the run-in with confidence. Wenger talked last week about the special qualities of the side which won the title in 2004, but he acknowledged that results are what create a sense that a team is bonding. This team, he insisted in a classic Wenger formulation, was "top, top spirit-wise".
"At the moment, spirit-wise I cannot criticise," he added. "In 2011, I would say that we lost it because the spirit was not exactly what it should have been because of the individual tap-ups. At the moment, I think on the spirit front we are all right." The real pressure, Wenger said, comes when you are out of the title race in February.
Arsenal are where their manager wants them to be. Victory today would give them the chance to create something new. "I believe the players are focused," Wenger said. "They do not look at what happened five years ago, they look at what is in front of them."
The Manchester United team in front of Arsenal today contains nothing of the old menace. Erasing the memories of past failures could still be the bigger hurdle.
Manchester Utd v Arsenal
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