By Richard Clarke
It seems that nothing can stop the rise of Wojciech Szczesny right now.
The keeper’s short but entertaining career as Arsenal No 1 is inextricably linked with Manchester. He made his Premier League debut at Old Trafford in December 2010 and could only establish a first-team run after Lukasz Fabianski injured his shoulder against Manchester City a year ago.
Even the toughest day so far - that 8-2 defeat at United in August - did not clip his wings.
Ahead of the return game at Emirates Stadium this Sunday, Arsène Wenger praised the recovery powers of his 21-year-old protégé.
“Wojciech has a high level of resistance to stress,” said his manager at Friday’s press conference. “In the game at Manchester United, he only conceded goals that you would not even consider a goalkeeper having the chance to save. They were all in the corner. On the day I think Manchester United just had the magic to hit those unbelievable goals. I didn't think he was at fault for one.
“But games like that can affect you and I believe a goalkeeper becomes vulnerable when he thinks he has let the team down. They go home, analyse it and think 'what could I do there?'
“However a top-level sportsman always has a good evaluation of his performances - an objective one. When they honestly feel they have nothing at fault, they get over it quickly. In this case, I don't think there was too much work to do with him.”
Yet, Wenger admits that Szczesny must shoulder his share of the responsibility for Danny Graham’s winner at Swansea last Sunday.
“He knows that,” said the Frenchman. “But a goalkeeper without any mistakes does not exist. Even great goalkeepers like Pepe Reina can concede a goal like he did against Man City where you would expect him to save. It happens to any goalkeeper. What you try to rate is the overall quality and performance. And I must say up until now we have had a good season with him.
“He is very young remember. So is De Gea at Manchester United, who is very talented as well. These young keepers, 20 or 21, are under a lot of pressure because everything is analysed, every single decision. The game is so quick now that if you make one decision in the fraction of a second, you are caught.”
Arsenal have been “caught” themselves at Fulham and Swansea in recent weeks. Back-to-back defeats leave them four points off Chelsea ahead of one their traditionally toughest fixtures.
The pre-match statistics are rather inconclusive. Manchester United have won seven of their last nine games against Arsenal in all competitions but only one of their last five visits to Emirates Stadium in the Premier League.
This may not be the title decider of 10 years ago but it seems the ‘Red Devils’ can still stir the emotions when they visit Emirates Stadium.
“We do [lift ourselves],” said Wenger. “We think we are on a similar level at the moment and I still think that when we have everybody available we are a strong force in this League. That's why it's important at the moment that we fight very hard [in order] not to drop points. We need to show that strength when we have everybody back.”
The only possible return on Sunday is Thomas Vermaelen while Thierry Henry may drop out from the squad that lost at Swansea. Both have calf problems, both are considered very doubtful.
Wenger’s resources were similarly stretched at Old Trafford back in August; a glance at the bench that day will tell you that. At the time, the manager suggested that result was a freak that would not impact on the season. It did not.
In fact, the 15-week period from then until the trip to Manchester City in mid-December was wonderful for Arsenal.
“People forgot that on that day at Old Trafford we conceded four goals in the last 20 minutes with 10 men and we played for our lives four days before at Udinese,” said Wenger.
“We played tremendously out there and came back completely exhausted. We knew it would be a difficult game before and we knew we could lose this game. But the game of that week was not Manchester United, it was Udinese to qualify for the Champions League.”
It is ironic that while Arsenal can look forward to a mouthwatering tie with Milan, both Manchester clubs face the fate Wenger admits he would detest – Europa League football.
Few would suggest this is shaping up to be a vintage season for Sir Alex Ferguson but, despite everything, his side are still strong runners in the title race. However their power base seems to have shifted.
Manchester United picked up 23 out of 27 points away from home in the first half of this season and suffered their first defeat on their road at Newcastle only a fortnight ago.
More often than not, Ferguson’s side have based their title bid on their Old Trafford form. Not this year. Incredibly, conceding three times at St James’ Park doubled their ‘goals against’ tally on the road.
Like Arsenal, they have invited back a ‘golden oldie’ to add short-term strength – Paul Scholes. But, as ever, Wayne Rooney remains their most destructive force – certainly against Wenger’s men.
The striker has scored six times in his last six games against Arsenal. That spell has coincided with a change of approach from Ferguson, particular when visiting North London; one in which he has often crowded the midfield and grabbed goals on the break.
“Yes they have sometimes had a very compact midfield to kill our passing game and get us on the counter-attack,” concluded Wenger. “They do that very well and sometimes it works for them. However last year we beat them 1-0 in a convincing way.
“As ever,” summed up the manager. “It just depends on how well we play on the day.”
Arsenal: Henry (doubt – calf), Vermaelen (doubt – calf), Arteta (calf), Santos (ankle), Sagna (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Jenkinson (back), Coquelin (hamstring), Gibbs (groin).
Man United: Welbeck (doubt – knee), Young (ankle), Fletcher (bowel condition), Vidic (knee), Owen (thigh), Cleverly (ankle), Anderson (training injury).
Thierry Henry’s last Premier League goal at Emirates Stadium was a late winner against Manchester United in 2007.
Wayne Rooney has missed his last two penalties in the Premier League.
If Manchester United score, it will be the 700th goal Arsenal have conceded in the Premier League.
Had Manchester United lost to Bolton last weekend, it would have been the first time in 10 years that they had lost three Premier League games in a row.Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 16 Jan 2012