The rivalry was immortalised in 1958 at Highbury, where the Busby Babes contested their final match in England, a 5-4 victory which innocently captured the flair and elan that have become defining characteristics of the institution.
The significance of United’s return to Arsenal in 2021 is a job to measure, both clubs striving to reconnect with glories past.
At this juncture United appear the more plausible yet the home defeat to bottom club Sheffield United on Wednesday was a reminder of the brittle nature of things at Old Trafford.
It was United’s first league defeat since Arsenal nicked a tight game on the first of November, a result that suggested then that Mikel Arteta’s nascent construct had the more stable foundations.
United edged possession but lacked an incisive blade. Arsenal seemed to understand each other better and in Thomas Partey had the most influential player on the pitch.
His loss in the next game against Aston Villa contributed hugely to the subsequent loss of bearings that would undermine confidence and tip Arsenal into a vortex from which they have only recently emerged.
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But as we enter the second half of the season the top four is beginning to acquire a more familiar look bookended by Manchester City and Liverpool with United tucked in second despite Wednesday’s listless reverse. Though seven points adrift of Liverpool in a share of eighth place, that is not a statistic that condemns Arsenal, but heralds a return to the light.
Since Boxing Day when they trashed Chelsea, Arsenal are undefeated in six league games, winning five.
Before that they returned two points from 21, an awful sequence that saw them lose at home to Villa, Wolves and Burnley as well as dive at Spurs and Everton. This might be called the pre-Emile Smith-Rowe period. Arteta’s inclusion of the “Croydon De Bruyne” in the No 10 role against Chelsea proved transformational.
His has been a revelation ten years in the making. As we discovered in the haunting depiction of discarded youth in these pages on Tuesday, the journey from ten-year-old prospect to fully fledged pro is more likely to end in misery than idolatry.
Smith-Rowe was part of England’s Under-17 World Cup winning team alongside Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
He signed full professional forms at Arsenal that summer. Injuries scarred the development process and even as recently as a year ago there was little sense that Smith-Rowe would generate enough momentum to follow fellow graduate Bukayo Saka into the first team.
Responding to that great anthropological driver necessity, the Mezut Ozil end-game facilitated Smith-Rowe’s introduction, and even received the exiled German’s approval.
“Team looks good with a No 10 like Emile Smith Rowe – the difference maker,” Özil tweeted after the 4-0 win at West Brom, Arsenal’s third victory in eight days.
Arteta will be hoping Smith-Rowe and Partey are both recovered from the knocks that forced their withdrawal during Tuesday’s impressive 3-1 victory at Southampton. The arrival of Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard is a deal ripe with promise but too little evidence to draw meaningful conclusions.
United are presently cultivating one of their own transfer punts, Amad Diallo, who in the imagination of supporters desperate for a leg up into the City/Liverpool orbit, is the answer to all their prayers. As ever the supercharged appraisal of supporters reflects their desire for change as much as the qualities of the players themselves. Both might come-off but probably not at this party.
Arteta will be more interested in the status of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was stood down at Southampton to attend to the concerns of his sick mother. In his stead record signing Nicolas Pepe returned to the side on the left and looked a player, scoring a brilliant opener. With the irreplaceable Saka established on the right, there is a whiff of permanence about Arsenal’s supercharged rise up the table.
Thus in this great, old fixture do Arsenal and United threaten in a way unthinkable at times this season a substantial test of the each other. Perhaps we are indeed witnessing the end of chaos and the return of familiar norms. Up the reds, as it were.
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