Sport Soccer

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Divided by the same obsession

The Premiership's most enduring rivals are now more alike than they think, says Dion Fanning

Arsene Wenger's preparations for Arsenal's title challenge in 2010 began at the time he was confronting Alex Ferguson in the tunnel at Old Trafford amid a hail of flying pizza and a downpour of soup.

On the afternoon of October 24, 2004, Arsenal lost their 49-game unbeaten record. The t-shirts hailing the 50-match run remained covered up and the defeat was laced with bitterness which it seemed would never go away. At Old Trafford, Manchester United weren't in the mood to provide a guard of honour.

At the beginning of that day, Manchester United seemed in decline. Arsenal had won the title the previous year without losing a game and they had handed the title to United the year before. But United won and the ugly scenes afterwards masked the weaknesses on and off the field at Arsenal.

The Invincibles were broken up and the fact there may be one player from that line-up, Sol Campbell, in the Arsenal team at the Emirates today tells a lot about the philosophy Wenger has been forced to adopt. As Chelsea bulldozed through the league that year, he was already implementing his plan to rebuild Arsenal.

The relationship between Ferguson and Wenger appeared to break into a million pieces that day. "Ferguson is finished, he's lost all sense of reality," Wenger said. "He seeks out confrontation and, when he finds it, he expects the other man to back down."

Ferguson wasn't backing down. "It's unthinkable that a manager wouldn't apologise for the poor behaviour of his players. It's disgraceful but I'm hardly waiting on an apology from Wenger. He's not the type of man to apologise."

The war seemed endless but in reality it was already over. Both teams were in decline, but Arsenal's plans for rebuilding would be more painstaking and have yet to be rewarded with trophies. Wenger insists there are other rewards. He has said that seeing a player make the most of his talent is a reward and perhaps it is, but nobody who has witnessed him after a defeat would believe he has learned to tolerate losing.

"There was this cauldron inside him," the former Arsenal scout Damien Comolli, who went on to work for Spurs, told French writer Xavier Rivoire. "Arsene in a rage is nothing like the image the public have of him. It is precisely the opposite because he is perceived as detached and lacking in passion."

In his rage, as in so many things, he is similar to Ferguson, although the Scot has never attempted to keep it hidden. The conventional wisdom is that, as the threat from Arsenal has diminished, Ferguson can now tolerate Wenger.

Ferguson, who lives for the next confrontation, may have found nothing in Arsenal to be outraged by in recent times, nothing to take a stance over. In that, he may have worried Wenger who has never felt a need to send out a team that avoids confrontation, even if as a person he doesn't look for it.

"I could not bear to sit on the bench with a team who won't play and gives up," he once said. "But, on the other hand, if I was obliged to shut down a game and squeeze the life from it to save my team, I would. But to say at the start of a season: 'This year, we're just going to keep our heads down and out of the firing line'. That's not possible."

Wenger has never run from confrontation while, even now, Ferguson goes looking for it. He may be enraged by Manchester City more than others at the moment and in confronting the United supporters over the Glazers, he has shown a willingness, once again, to make an unpopular case. Yet he will always find time for Arsene. When Wenger talked about Darren Fletcher following the meeting at Old Trafford, Ferguson was quick to slap him down.

He scolded him for the words again last week, a sign that as the teams meet today there could yet be moments when their maturity is lost. Wenger in particular would consider it a price worth paying if it meant Arsenal were contenders again.

Wenger had once been prepared to compete for every top footballer in the world but the squeeze that was put on internally and externally changed that. In 2004, Arsenal were borrowing to build a stadium and Chelsea were spending to build a plutocracy which they would rule. Manchester United could, at that stage, compete, but Arsenal couldn't.

Wenger would back his judgement. He has never really doubted it. If he could not compete for the best players, he would find the best at an early age and mould them into the team he wanted.

There have been moments when it appeared he had found them. Two years ago Arsenal challenged for the title and ended up only four points behind United but last season they seemed to move further away, a reminder that without the resources of Chelsea and now Manchester City, a team like Arsenal is only a couple of injuries away from freefall.

This season is different for so many reasons. Arsenal have stayed in contention despite the injury to Robin van Persie but it remains to be seen if their challenge can be sustained or if they have been aided by the inability of any team to go on a run.

Ferguson will believe his side can do that, even if they are weaker than the side which has won the last three titles. On Wednesday night, United overwhelmed Manchester City thanks to Wayne Rooney primarily and an atmosphere inside Old Trafford that was more a reflection of the manager's personality than has been heard in recent times. United discovered that they can still do defiance.

Faced with opponents who are brash and local, United displayed a collective personality that Ferguson would demand in any team. This was not a Carling Cup game, it was an opportunity to make a statement.

Now Ferguson will look to see if his team can make another one against a side whose pretensions they have always enjoyed dismantling.

Ferguson has always bristled at the idea that Wenger is the sophisticate in their relationship. In fact, Wenger is probably the more obsessive about football. He has an interest in politics but nothing substantial that would force him to spend time away from football.

When he was a young coach, Wenger lived in an apartment with no furniture except a bed. Time spent looking for luxuries like chairs or a table was, he explained, time that could be used looking at footballers. Ferguson may have outside interests but they do not distract him from the need, that must be renewed on a daily basis, of proving Manchester United's greatness. Now he is working with similar restrictions to Wenger. United insisted again yesterday that Ferguson can spend the Ronaldo money when he wishes.

"The cash from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo is available for Sir Alex to spend and it will be spent on players who are available for purchase and who the manager thinks can improve the squad, not to prove to pundits that it exists," the club said in a statement released to the BBC.

But United and Arsenal are now existing in the same world again and that may yet add to the friction in the relationship between the managers.

The managers too are essential to their clubs' success, especially in Arsenal's case where the players are always in danger of being wooed by better wages and names that are bigger in European terms.

Wenger will want a European Cup, but he will want a Premier League title again so that he can prove there is another way to win, a way he believes in.

He has said that if he had become Arsenal manager 25 years ago, he wouldn't have had the tolerance for the job. It is not a question of mellowing but of knowing which fights to pick. He may have no option with Ferguson and the pair may go on for some time.

"I admire the pianist Rubinstein who is still giving concerts at 83 years of age. I have a horror of retirement and I have a horror of the thought of being in a job I have to give up at a certain moment, despite working at full capacity."

The words could have been Ferguson's but they were Wenger's and again they are united in their obsessive commitment and their desire to keep going.

They have always been divided by their similarities. "Ferguson's only weakness is that he doesn't have one," Wenger said once. Ferguson, in his own way, would probably agree with that.

Arsenal v Manchester United

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