October 24th 2004. Arsenal are on an unbeaten run of 49 games, United still smarting from a poor start to the league season. Arsenal to visit Old Trafford in their next league match to accomplish an unprecedented and record breaking 50th unbeaten league game. Lose their next game and that's the domestic season for them.
Full time: Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal.
That game will live long in the memory of many Reds who were fortunate to witness Old Trafford play 'party-crusher'. If Arsenal's unbeaten run and dominance the season made United lose their fear factor, that game restored the uncertainty teams had on their way to Old Trafford. The most damning verdict about that result was that it should have happened 12 months earlier when a similar game plan and performance ended with Ruud van Nistelrooy starring at Jens Lehmann from 12 yards in the 90th minute. One kick and there would be no unbeaten run. As fate would have it, Ruud, who was always the assured penalty taker, smashed his kick against the frame of the goal and given the venom with which the game had been played, Martin Kenwon literally hauled himself into van Nistelrooy's face and the rest of the Arsenal players followed suit. Arsenal had survived by a lick of paint and they would go on to make the most of it.
Arsenal would go on to bully the rest of the league into submission until the inevitability of going back to Old Trafford on October 24th 2004 caught up with them.
In that game, Sir Alex had to devise a means of stopping Arsene Wenger's fluent machine that had Jose Antonio Reyes as the lubricant of devastating football. The answers lay in old school football, a brand that Sir Alex is all too well versed with. He realised that teams gave Arsenal an easy ride in the game by not 'turning up'. It appears as though teams were so much overawed by the style of play of Arsenal that instead of playing against them, they watched them play and almost simply just stood by.
Sir Alex set his side up during the week to turn up. They were going into the game as underdogs, but by the end of the game, Arsenal would know that they had played against Manchester United---just as they did the season before.
In place of deploying another free-lance midfielder, the manager chose to ask Phillip Neville to make himself a physical presence in the middle of the pitch as well as Gary Neville to remind Reyes that he was actually playing in England---where the culture is to get stuck in, go hard in the fair tackle. Boy did it work like magic. Antonio Reyes didn't last the game, and quite frankly his career, despite not sustaining a major injury, seemed psychologically permanently injured to the extent that Arsenal had to sell their most expensive signing less than a year later. It wasn't just the Neville brothers though, United put in the miles on pitch and never allowed Arsenal to build any sort of momentum and rhythm to their game. The Gunners were hardly allowed the time and space that they had been afforded throughout their unbeaten run.
As fate would again have it, with the scores yet again tied at 0-0 between the sides, Ruud van Nistelrooy found himself 12 yards from Jens Lehmann with a chance to bury the ghosts that had haunted him since that penalty miss a year earlier. Three steps later, and Lehmann dived the wrong way, van Nistelrooy burried it, relif, and a cry of joy filled the Dutchman as United went 1-0 up against the North Londoners.
Twenty odd minutes on and Wayne Rooney' close range finish later and Arsenal were, in the words of commentator Jon Champion, bowled out at 49! Manchester United had tamed a beast that was threatening to consume English football and take their place as the dominant force of the Premier League era. It was a result whose shock waves are still felt to-date for since then, Arsenal have not won the league title.
Fast forward to this Sunday and there are plenty of similarities between this season's tie and then. Arsenal have earned similar status to that side given their impressive start to the season and the grim reality that United will be faced with if they are beaten on the day. 11 points behind them will just about put paid to United's hopes of defending their league title. Sunday's game is, like that famous tie, a must win game at Old Trafford.
Our ties against the other big sides in the league so far have seen us come worse off without even turning up on the day. Sunday has now become a must turn up game for us. David Moyes needs to ask that much more from his team on the day because allowing Arsenal to play has not helped the cause of any other team that has played them so far. The only side that has really dealt perfectly with Arsenal's fluid movement this season has been BVB Dortmund, and that is not because of the beautiful football that BVB play. It is rather down to the pressing system that makes Jurgen Klopp's sides chock the life out of their opponents.
Whereas there is a tendency for us to fall back when we lose possession, Sunday will require that we hurt Arsenal without the ball a lot more than we've been doing in games. We need to hurry them in possession as they will surely do to us and get stuck in the tackle when we have to. We can talk tactics all all but the reality is that nothing seems to have puzzled this Arsenal team more than not being allowed to play and get into their rhythm.
Manchester United, being England's first club means that they remain the biggest sellers of the old British system of hurrying the opposition and going in hard on the tackle. Arsenal need a dose of the same. It is noticeable that teams are now playing Arsenal at their own game and expecting to win by virtue of the club's underachievement for the last 8 years. I think it is time that teams revert to stopping Arsenal playing and succumbing to their own raw styles. Arsenal cannot certainly complain of being treated harshly on pitch when their own players assaulted Ruud van Nistelrooy for missing a penalty. We can only promise that we will not return the exact favour.
*Of curse the assumption is that David Moyes is a reader of this blog which in all probability is wrong, so do not expect a character filled United on the pitch on Sunday but I really hope the lads bleed for three points as the reward for getting the win on the night will be a return to the glory days of being in the mix for the league title. It certainly is a game to break a leg for. And in some of the last words of Duncan Edwards on his death bed in that Munich hospital, Let's 'get stuck in'!
SO COME ON UNITED!