Llisten closely and you might just hear the sound of an old rivalry. There is unlikely to be any pizza in the Emirates Stadium tunnel on Sunday, and even if the penalty is missed, the prospect of a brawl between hijackers and rioters seems slim. But Arsenal and Manchester United meet in the middle of a clear feeling that things are changing: in recent years, all the excitement surrounding this lamp is based directly on its tradition, but it is finally taking on a life of its own again.
This isn’t a title clash: any hints that the race for first place could develop into a showdown between these two foes were soundly belied by the midweek returns to Selhurst Park and Etihad. Even if United win, they will be five points behind Arsenal who have played a game more. The bigger picture, however, is that they are finally a threat to each other again on the business front, and not just for fifth or sixth place.
The anticipation can be sustained. Arsenal are the best team in this season’s Premier League and will win it unless their form drops and Manchester City rediscover the fire that Pep Guardiola believes has been lost. They face a United side who have won nine of their last 10 and feel ahead of schedule under Erik Ten Haag. A return to the Champions League would be enough for most at Old Trafford, but United are third, have almost halved their local rivals and know as well as anyone that momentum is an intoxicating drug.
Mikel Arteta will appreciate the difference. His first win as Arsenal manager came in this schedule, on New Year’s Day 2020: Nicolas Pépé and Sokratis Papastathopoulos scored against a miserable United and, although Arsenal played well, that fact alone is enough to highlight what has changed. It’s been a painstaking process but Arteta, backed by a patient committee who knew he had to drive culture and quality change, looks well set to get the job done.
Arsenal finished eighth that season; United were third but ended up 15 points behind second and 33 behind champions Liverpool. Whoever won their bout, it was nothing like the heavyweight clash that routinely made waves through the sport two decades ago. Celebrating short-term supremacy over a counterpart with faded power brings only limited fulfillment.
It took three years for Arteta to achieve what appears to be close to a complete turnaround. His feat will certainly fit that definition once Arsenal start winning major trophies again. Ten Hag also deserves credit for bringing United up to competitive level so quickly after joining a club that had lost direction and soul.
“Really impressive,” Arteta said of his colleague’s performance. “He turned things around pretty quickly. It implemented a very clear gameplay. The players seem to have bought into it, there’s a good energy around the place and a lot has changed in a short space of time.”
Clarity and consistency are what, with the right staff at the helm, have borne fruit for Arteta. For many managers, the most difficult moment is when their players cross the white line: despite all their persuasions, and Arteta is not slow with them, the controls quickly disappear. But these days Arteta can trust his team to play at a certain level regardless of the result; he knows what he’s going to get and that confidence, more than anything else, paves the way for a successful title.
The feeling is that United don’t have that yet, although Ten Hag has made a crucial transition to a side that can win through myth as well as individual moments. A costly late concession against Palace was a misfortune Arsenal would have invented last season; they haven’t shown many signs of anything similar this time around and are still a few steps ahead of the opposition this weekend.
Of the Arsenal team that prevailed in 2020, only Granit Xhaka will remain on Sunday; five players who were then underachieving for United will start for Ten Hag, assuming Fred replaces the suspended Casemiro, in a stat that both praises the level he has squeezed out of a previously disparate group and suggests a rebuild has only just begun.
Arsenal’s transformation continued on Friday with arrival of Leandro Trossard from Brighton; central defender Jakub Kiwior, who plays for Spezia in Serie A, should follow soon. Trossard knows how to deliver the death blow to United: he scored the last goal in a 4-0 rout of the Seagulls in May, four weeks after tearing through Arsenal’s defense in north London. Arsenal were hoping that Mykhailo Mudryk would be there for them, but perhaps, looking for alternatives, they have found a new hero for this game.
The joy for both sides today is that there are plenty of contenders for that role, whether Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Martin Ødegaard or Christian Eriksen are tall. “I have to lift my players, make sure they are up to it and still have something in their stomachs to try and beat Manchester United,” Arteta said. It’s been a long time coming, but this clash of giants looks delicious again.