By Declan Taylor
The last time Arsenal met Manchester United, the point earned by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in a gritty goalless draw at Old Trafford was enough to clinch the Premier League title.
Of course, no trophies will be handed out on Saturday evening, but the encounter might be the season’s most accurate measuring stick so far.
The Gunners have exploded into action this season, firing 15 goals in their four-straight wins. On the other hand, Man United seemed to have put a rather spluttering start behind them with an emphatic 5-0 victory over Wigan at the weekend.
Ahead of the clash - 2009/10’s first meeting of two Big Four sides - we caught up with our regular Red Devils man-in-the-know Stuart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News for his take on the champions, the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and the importance of centurion Wayne Rooney.
THE STORY SO FAR
"United have started the season pretty much so-so to be honest. Birmingham was fairly uninspiring, sort of run-of-the-mill 1-0 win and we could have scored more. At Burnley they were very, very poor as everybody saw. Still had a few chances but it wasn't really the real United.
"First half at Wigan, a few more chances, but a little bit Turf Moor revisited. Second half, you couldn't really see it coming, but absolutely sensational. They just pile-played and wiped Wigan out, their collapse was incredible. For 45 minutes, I think we saw the real United, but the first half was poor and relatively uninspiring."
"This season's formation is very traditional; it's what United fans have been crying out for for a long, long time. I can see why the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, employed different tactics in different matches, particularly in Europe. But certainly in the Premier League if you took a straw poll at Old Trafford, 90-odd per cent would want traditional 4-4-2 and that's what they've gone back to. To a man I think they'd probably prefer this system.
"The one big beneficiary to me, and probably to him as well, has been Wayne Rooney. I know to Arsenal's cost last season Rooney played wide left in a lot of matches, certainly in the two Champions League Semis. He played well, but then in the Final he was completely anonymous and isolated in that role. It was a hit-and-miss role really but I think he was glad to get back to the traditional centre-forward role where he's played most times for England and I think his scoring stats for England show that's where he plays best."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"It's hard to believe it's now five years since he joined United and he's only 23. One hundred goals for a club and he's only 23, its fantastic, especially at the level we're talking about. He suffers because he's a guy that will do the job that Sir Alex asked of him last season without going banging on his door saying 'hold on a minute this isn't doing me much good'. He's that kind of a guy; he'll play anything that's asked of him. He just loves playing football. But he said he prefers to play centre forward and he 's really looked the business in that role this season. He set off on fire and I just hope he continues."
"Terrific business to get £80million in without a shadow of a doubt, but they've lost a fantastic player in Cristiano Ronaldo. You think to how he destroyed Arsenal at the Emirates last season in the Champions League. It's very, very hard to replace that kind of a player. So yes, the money's fantastic, but you know you've lost a very good player.
"Nevertheless, I think Arsenal have proved it in the past, certainly United have, I can point to many changes in the systems and the personnel having lost great players, fantastic players, and the trophies keep rolling in. I've no doubt United will miss him in certain games and we'll miss certain things about him, but I think probably we'll look back in the end and say, well £80million banked and United have still won A or B trophy."
THE MAN IN CHARGE
"I think as he does with any game Sir Alex will certainly have had Arsenal watched and he'll know all about them. I think last season gave United a great fillip against Arsenal in what they did in the Champions League Semi-Final. But like I said, that was with Ronaldo in the side, it was a different system. Ronaldo sort of playing up-front on his own and breaking up-front was always very successful in those two matches but it's going to be a different system on Saturday. There's plenty of respect there.
"At the start of the season we talked to Sir Alex and he said 'you can throw a blanket over United, Chelsea and Liverpool and there's not much between us'. Nobody at the time took him up on it. Presumably he thought that maybe with Arsenal's younger element they might not be quite there. I'm sure that he would reassess that and include them in it now because it's been a sensational start."
ONE TO WATCH
"Michael Owen had a good pre-season in the Far East, and scored quite a few goals. In fairness it's not the hardest of things to score in the Far East on these tours. He missed quite a few chances early in his Premier League career but probably, he said it himself and he's absolutely right, he scored the hardest chance he's had at Wigan on Saturday and hopefully that'll set him going.
"Owen to United was probably the biggest shock of the summer. When we got whisper of it, listening to Man United fans talking to people, 'no it wont come off that, no way', 'oh no an ex-Liverpool player who's gone down the nick.' Then they signed him and everyone started re-evaluating it. 'Well hold on a minute, he's not cost us anything and he might score goals, let's see how it goes.' And I think they've changed their tune on it now. He's not going to start as many as Rooney, but if Owen can score maybe 10, 15 goals this season, I think you would count that as a very big success.
"Antonio Valencia has been brought in to replace Ronaldo, but only in the fact that he plays on the right. In terms of style of play he's totally different. He's easing his way in there. He's looked ok, he's done a few nice things. What a lot of people like about him, which is probably good in this 4-4-2 formation, is that when he beats a man he doesn't go back and try and beat him again or do anything silly or wait. He beats a man and puts a ball in and puts in some very dangerous crosses.
"Once he gets used to the United stage, I think he'll be a good acquisition. He's not going to be Ronaldo. I don't for one-minute think three years down the line we're looking at the World Player of the Year in him, but I think were looking at a decent right-winger."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"Quite honestly for football's sake I think it's fantastic that Arsenal have started so well. Personally I love the football Arsenal play, like United. So, I think it's great that against all the odds and all the critics Arsenal started so well.
"I think we'll certainly expect to see a better Arsenal than in the two Champions League Semi-Finals. I was looking forward to those two games, but as much as United were sensational, particularly on the second night in London, I thought Arsenal were particularly disappointing. They looked quite raw and naïve at that point, which is probably why a lot of people thought maybe they wouldn't do much this season.
"But I think their start to the season, and the way they came to Old Trafford and looked a better team in the League, days later almost, I think they got their pride back and got I think they probably got their confidence back. And with their start to the season I expect them to come roaring into this one. I don’t think we'll see a side lacking confidence, I think Arsenal will be ready for it and go for it. United haven't exactly stormed out of the blocks, so it will be a pretty even game I would think."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 28 Aug 2009