Arsenal v Manchester United looks like a meeting of giants again | Soccer

Llisten carefully and you might just hear the sound of an old rivalry stirring. On Sunday there is unlikely to be pizza in the Emirates Stadium tunnel and, even if a penalty is missed, the chances of a bawling match between taker and miscreant appear remote. But Arsenal and Manchester United meet amid a clear sense things are changing: in recent years any excitement around this fixture has leant squarely on its tradition but, at long last, it takes on a life of its own once again.

This is not a title showdown: any suggestion the race for top spot might develop into a shootout between these two foes was firmly refuted by midweek comebacks at Selhurst Park and the Etihad. Even if United win, they will be five points shy of Arsenal having played a game more. The bigger picture, though, is that they are finally a threat to each other at the business end again, not simply for fifth or sixth place.

The anticipation can sustain itself. arsenal are the best team in this season’s Premier League and will win it unless their level tails off and Manchester City rediscover the fire Pep Guardiola believes has been lost. They meet a United side who have won nine of their past 10 and feel ahead of schedule under Erik Ten Hag. A return to the Champions League would suffice for most at Old Trafford but United are third, have almost hunted down their local rivals and know as well as anyone that momentum is an intoxicating drug.

Mikel Arteta will be able to appreciate the difference. His first win for him as Arsenal manager came in this fixture, on New Year’s Day of 2020: Nicolas Pépé and Sokratis Papastathopoulos scored the goals against a poor United and, while Arsenal played well, that fact alone is enough to highlight what has changed. It has been a painstaking process but Arteta, backed by a patient board who knew he had to instigate a change both of culture and quality, looks well set to complete the job.

Arsenal finished eighth that season; United came third but ended up 15 points shy of second and 33 off the champions, Liverpool. Whoever won their jousts, it was nothing like the clash of heavyweights that routinely sent ripples through the sport two decades previously. Celebrating short-term superiority over a fellow faded power only brings limited fulfillment.

Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag.
Mikel Arteta described the quick turnaround in Manchester United’s fortunes under Erik ten Hag as ‘really impressive’. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

It has taken Arteta three years to effect what looks close to a complete turnaround. His feat di lui will certainly fit that definition as soon as Arsenal begin winning major trophies again. Ten Hag deserves credit, too, for wrenching United to a competitive level so soon after joining a club that had lost its direction and soul.

“Really impressive,” Arteta said of his colleague’s performance. “He’s turned things around pretty quickly. He’s implemented a very clear way of playing. The players seem to have bought into it, there’s a good energy around the place and a lot has changed in a short period of time.”

Clarity and consistency are what have, with the right personnel in tow, borne fruit for Arteta. The hardest moment for many managers is when their players cross the white line: for all their exhortations, and Arteta is not slow with those, the controllables disappear rapidly. But these days Arteta can trust that his side of him will perform to a certain level regardless of result; he knows what he will get and that reliability, more than anything, paves the way for a successful title tilt.

Arsenal's Martin Keown taunts Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy for missing a penalty during a match in September 2003
Arsenal’s Martin Keown taunts Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy for missing a penalty during a match in 2003, the golden era of the teams’ matchups. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The feeling is that United do not quite have that yet, even though Ten Hag has effected the crucial transition to a side that can win through graft as well as individual moments. The costly late concession against Palace was the kind of mishap Arsenal would have contrived last season; they have not shown much sign of anything similar this time and still appear a couple of steps ahead of this weekend’s opposition.

From the Arsenal team that prevailed in 2020, only Granit Xhaka will remain on Sunday; five of the players that flopped for United back then will start for Ten Hag, assuming Fred replaces the suspended Casemiro, in a statistic that at once commends the level he has squeezed out of a previously disparate bunch and suggests the rebuild has only just begun.

Arsenal’s transformation continued on Friday with the arrival of Leandro Trossard from Brighton; centre-back Jakub Kiwior, who plays for Spezia in Serie A, should follow soon. Trossard knows how to strike a lethal blow to United: he scored the final goal of a 4-0 thrashing for the Seagulls in May, four weeks after breaching Arsenal’s defense in north London. Arsenal had hoped Mykhailo Mudryk would be turning out for them but perhaps, in sifting through the alternatives, they have happened upon a new hero for this fixture.

The joy for both sides nowadays is that there are plenty of candidates for that role, whether Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Martin Ødegaard or Christian Eriksen stand tall. “I have to lift my players, make sure they are up to it and that they still have something in the tummy to try to beat Manchester United,” Arteta said. It has been a long time coming, but this collision of giants looks tasty again.

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