You have to admit, Manchester United straight after a Champions League home defeat looked ominous. As a club, Arsenal have suffered too many dark days against United, and it has been a bit too one-sided. They have dominated us, and have had us supporters do some serious soul-searching on more than one occasion. And naturally, finger-pointing and vitriolic anger has been aimed at manager, Arsene Wenger.
How the debates have raged between those who think Arsene is like Mohammed Ali, and those who think he’s clinging to a job he doesn’t deserve.
We’ve had more than our share of Champions League disappointment, so much so, that the competition itself doesn’t quite generate the excitement among the fans that Europe’s elite tournament should. If supporters were full of volcanic lava after the Dinamo Zagreb match, the Olmpiacos game just led to much confusion and more frustrated resignation to the point where the Champions League has practically been written off.
Manchester United is a game that gets the hairs on the back of your neck bristling in anticipation. It’s one of the stand-out fixtures that the world temporarily stops for. It matters big time.
It is also a fixture with a lot of poignancy for United supporters of a certain vintage, because 57 years and eight months ago, the two clubs played out a nine-goal thriller at Highbury, United’s last game before their ill-fated Munich air-disaster. I bet Bobby Charlton remembers. I bet JC, GunnerN5 and Kelsey do too.
For 17 years, between 1996 and 2013, it’s been Fergie versus Arsene. On reflection, it isn’t really a fair fight. Ferguson did a fantastic job, but between Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, United were a bit like Eric Morcambe’s piano-playing. They were playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
What Ferguson did much more competently than his predecessors was harness United’s financial muscle and make it decisive. Because of this, you have to put Manchester United alongside Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
After the ‘here-today-gone-tomorrow’ David Moyes stint, the Glazer’s went back to the more familiar route of hiring a big name manager, Louis van Gaal, who has managed most of the world’s major club’s and more recently, took the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final. But boy does he love to spend.
Unlike Ferguson, van Gaal and United can no longer rely on local talent, the well is running dry. Plus the heat has been turned-up quite a few notches from the noisy neighbours and recent billionaires, City.
In his first summer Louis van Gaal spent a quarter of a billion, investing in a club that just 15 months earlier had been runaway PL Champions. And there was a significant spend this summer too. As well as an expensively assembled squad, they also managed to keep hold of Goalkeeper David de Gea, their player of the year three years in succession.
But what really gets up the noses of opposing fans is that they’re media ‘luvvies’. Ever since I was a little boy all I can recall among the football reporting genre is gushing sycophancy over everything United. An attitude of ‘whatever else is happening in English football, the biggest story is always at Old Trafford’.
It grates hard, and it’s one of the main reasons this fixture resonates so deeply among the Arsenal faithful. Regardless of who the manager is, it’s Manchester United, and if you don’t support them, you hate them. For me personally, heading into the Manchester United game, I saw it as one to get out of the way and put behind us.
I recall LB being extremely bullish immediately after the Olympiacos game and predicting a win. I wanted to believe him, as we all would, but there was absolutely nothing I could think of to support that level of optimism, particularly recent history.
With all the statistical and logical evidence weighing against Arsenal, I declined an invitation to watch the game, and chose instead to listen to 5Live, knowing that if it got too bad, I could switch it off.
Then something incredible happened. Something completely unscripted, something so big, it shook the watching world.
Something clicked that had never before clicked among this group, and Arsenal supporters were treated to an exhibition, the like of which was last seen at Highbury.
ARSENAL 3-0 MANCHESTER UNITED.
How beautiful does that look? It looks even better when you never expected to see anything like that result.
Alexis Sanchez is an incredible force of nature, and the effect his presence is having is palpable. The biggest transformation we’ve seen since Sanchez’s arrival is that of Theo Walcott. He has suddenly stepped up. He has menace, he is no longer the peripheral weakling who drifts in and out of games, he may yet save Arsenal millions of pounds in their search for a prolific striker. I think Theo’s change of attitude is as much down to the signings of Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech, the winning mentality they bring with them, the level they expect from their team-mates. But he wouldn’t have done it without his own desire to knuckle down and learn, and with Alexis and Thierry Henry he has two of the best.
As LB has said, this result is huge and shouldn’t be played down or forgotten about too quickly. Arsenal have laid down a statement of intent, the mood is changing. Players like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech signed for Arsenal to win titles, and a performance such as that against United can only reinforce belief. It has broken a huge psychological barrier, and if they can remain relatively injury-free in key areas, Arsene’s summer transfer business will look incredibly shrewd.
And for his dedication to detail, and his devotion to Arsenal, Arsene Wenger deserves that result against Manchester United. October 4th, 2015 might go down as a significant day in Arsenal’s recent history. It could just be the day when they re-discovered their inner-beast, the ability to tear teams apart regardless of their reputation. The day Arsenal realised they have the ability to go on and win the Premier League. Like wounded lions they roared, and suddenly the mind-set is different among players and supporters. It feels like a genuine title-challenge may be on and a massive corner has been turned.
If winning the PL means sacrificing Europe, so be it, there’s nothing better than winning your own title.
Naturally, we all want Arsenal to win the Champions League, it has after all become club football’s most prestigious trophy, but with Spain and Germany housing the three most powerful clubs in world football, we have to be realistic.
The biggest thing about this result though, is belief. United are always the yardstick to measure where Arsenal are at. A defeat – which many, including myself, predicted – would have left Arsenal in no-mans land. Still doing enough to finish top four, but no visible progress and no title. However, a win – well done, LB – creates a very different landscape, a buzz of excitement, one where sometimes people like me have to humbly bow our head and feel a slight sense of embarrassment for ever questioning Arsene’s wisdom.
As I said on the day, I’m delighted to be proved wrong and the result offers renewed hope. This performance underlines Arsenal’s title credentials and elevates Arsene right back in the game. More of this and supporters will forget why they ever wanted Arsene to leave, but patience will be a key issue in an increasingly unpredictable PL, and the old cliché OGAAT is very appropriate this season having seen many false dawns.
Arsenal often strike when people least expect, and this feels like it could be one of those times.
Is the Emirates about to welcome its first PL title?
Written by Herb’s Army