"It could have been 20," Sir Alex Ferguson recounts in his book. "It actually reached the point where I felt - please, no more goals. It was a humiliation for Arsène."

Ferguson is, in case your memory is selective, talking about The 8-2 in August 2011 - the bleakest day in Arsène Wenger's reign, when Francis Coquelin was "completely out of his depth" and Andrei Arshavin "contributed nothing". It signalled just how irrelevant Arsenal had become to Manchester United. Even in the last six years, on the one occasion when there was something riding on the match Arsène Wenger was taking a knife to a gunfight.

Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tévez were on the bench for United's blistering evisceration of Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final. Gooners had been handed flags for the occasion, having escaped with a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford the previous week, but waved them for less than eight minutes. Cristiano Ronaldo's free-kick swiftly followed Ji-Sung Park's early opener and United fans began booking flights to Rome. The joke at the time went: 57,000 Arsenal flags for sale. Good as new. Only waved for eight minutes.

These two so-called rivals have been nothing of the sort during Arsenal's trophyless years. Occasionally, there have been games billed as "big". United's April 2008 Premier League win was a seminal victory, their 3-1 victory in January 2010 essential and Park's winner in the December 2010 clash actually saw United leapfrog Arsenal to the top of the table.

The common theme running through those three seasons was Arsenal's sheer lack of mettle, as they collapsed spectacularly in each campaign. The seismic-shifting moments stand out like sore thumbs: Eduardo da Silva's broken leg, Wigan's remarkable comeback from 0-2 down to win 3-2 and the 2011 League Cup final all triggered different downfalls in different seasons. Arsenal finished four points off the top in 2008 and were viewed as contenders in the spring of 2010 and 2011, but it was never for real.

United's 2-1 win at Arsenal two seasons ago flattered the hosts. Their dominance at the Emirates Stadium was such that the fixture was in danger of not being televised again, unless in the interests of gallows humour. Arsenal were in freefall and fading into the same obscurity from which Newcastle - briefly United's foes in the mid-90s - have never recovered.

Something has changed in north London, though, and it isn't Arsenal's squad. The tendency for orchestral football and overplaying it is still there, and so is a newfound resilience. So starved of success are Wenger's players they have belatedly rallied and displayed different characteristics they perhaps doubted they ever possessed.

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  • Soccer - Carling Premiership - Arsenal v Manchester United

    Referee Martin Bodenham waves away Ian Wright, Arsenal after his clash Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United

  • SOCCER Wright/Schmeichel

    Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (hidden, 2nd left) holds back striker Ian Wright as referee Martin Bodenham remonstrates with him over a tackle on Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel (on floor). The incident happened during this evening's (Wednesday) Premier League match at Highbury. Manchester United won 2-1. Photo by Tony Harris/PA. SEE PA STORY SOCCER Arsenal.

  • Marc Overmars

    14 Mar 1998: Marc Overmars of Arsenal scores the winner against Manchester United during the FA Carling Premiership match at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. Arsenal won 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill /Allsport

  • FA Cup semi-final Roy Keane

    11 Apr 1999: Manchester United captain Roy Keane leads the protests against the assistant referee after his goal is disallowed for off-side during the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal at Villa Park in Birmingham, England. The game ended 0-0 after extra-time. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

  • Vivas gets red card/FA cup semi

    This picture can only be used within the context of an editorial feature. Arsenal's Nelson Vivas gets a red card for a second bookable offence during the FA Cup semi-final clash against Manchester United at Villa Park. Final score 0-0.

  • Ryan Giggs of Manchester United

    14 Apr 1999: Ryan Giggs of Manchester United beats the despairing lunge of Tony Adams of Arsenal to drive the ball past David Seaman to score the winner in the FA Cup Semi Final match played at Villa Park in Birmingham. Manchester United won the game 2-1 after extra-time. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill /Allsport

  • ManU/Arsenal Ferguson/bench

    This picture may only be used in the context of an editorial feature. The Man United bench erupt after Ryan Giggs scores in extra-time during the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, at Villa Park, guaranteeing United's place in the final, against Newcastle.

  • ManU/fans celebration

    This picture may only be used in the context of an editorial feature. Manchester United players are mobbed by fans after Ryan Giggs' extra time winner against Arsenal, at Villa Park. Man Utd go on to face Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.

  • ManU/Arsenal fans fight

    This picture may only be used in the context of an editorial feature. Manchester United and Arsenal fans fight after the final whistle of the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. United won the tie 2-1, with an extra-time goal by Ryan Giggs.

  • Arsenal/United/Keane/Vieira

    This picture can only be used within the context of an editorial feature. Roy Keane of Manchester United and Arsenal's Patrick Vieira come to blows during an FA Premiership football match at Arsenal's Highbury ground.

  • Roy Keane

    22 Aug 1999: Roy Keane of Manchester United clashes with Patrick Vieira of Arsenal during the FA Carling Premiership match against Arsenal played at Highbury in London, England. The match finished in a 2-1 win to Manchester United. \ Mandatory Credit:Clive Brunskill /Allsport

  • Roy Keane

    22 Aug 1999: Roy Keane of Manchester United is spoken to by the referee as tempers flare during the FA Carling Premiership match against Arsenal played at Highbury in London, England. The match finished in a 2-1 win to Manchester United. \ Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

  • Arsenal v Man Utd

    1 Oct 2000: Thierry Henry of Arsenal consoles Fabien Barthez of Manchester United after the FA Carling Premiership game between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury in London. Mandatory Credit: Graham Chadwick/ALLSPORT

  • Man Utd v Arsenal

    25 Feb 2001: Dwight Yorke of Man Utd celebrates after scoring the second goal during the Manchester United v Arsenal FA Carling Premiership match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Mandatory Credit: Gary M. Prior/ALLSPORT

  • Arsenal v Manchester

    25 Nov 2001: Thierry Henry of Arsenal beats Manchester Keeper Fabien Barthez during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury, London. Mandatory Credit: Phil Cole/ALLSPORT

  • Arsenal celebrate title

    MANCHESTER - MAY 8: Arsenal players celebrate winning the league title after the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Manchester United and Arsenal played at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England on May 8, 2002. Arsenal won the match 1-0 to clinch the league title. DIGITAL IMAGE. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

  • Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United argues with the referee Jeff Winter as a brawl breaks out

    MANCHESTER - FEBRUARY 15: Ruud van Nistelrooy of Manchester United argues with the referee Jeff Winter as a brawl breaks out during the FA Cup fifth round match between Manchester United and Arsenal held on February 15, 2003 at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England. Arsenal won the match 2-0. (Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Arsenal v Manchester United

    Arsenal's Sol Campbell argues with Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Campbell is sent off for the use of an elbow on Solskjaer

  • Arsenal's Francis Jeffers lands on Manch

    Arsenal's Francis Jeffers lands on Manchester United's Philip Neville after a hard tackle which resulted in a red card for Jeffers during the FA Community Shield soccer match 10 August, 2003 in Cardiff, Wales, UK. Manchester United and Arsenal tied one goal each with Manchester United winning on penalty kicks 5-4. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Arsenal's French Patrick Vieira (C) is r

    Arsenal's French Patrick Vieira (C) is restrained by Manchester United players to keep him away from Ruud van Nistelrooy (2nd L) after an altercation between them lead to Vieira's second red card and sending off during Barclaycard Premiership at Old Trafford, in Manchester, 21 September 2003. AFP Photo Paul Barker (Photo credit should read PAUL BARKER/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Man Utd v Arsenal

    Arsenal's Patrick Vieira is shown the red card by referee Steve Bennett following an incident with Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy during their FA Barclaycard Premiership match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Manchester United drew 0-0 with Arsenal. THIS PICTURE CAN ONLY BE USED WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF AN EDITORIAL FEATURE. NO WEBSITE/INTERNET USE UNLESS SITE IS REGISTERED WITH FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION PREMIER LEAGUE.

  • Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Manchester United v Arsenal

    Arsenal's Jens Lehmann, Ray Parlour and Patrick Vieira argue with referee Steve Bennett after the red card to Vieira

  • Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Manchester United v Arsenal

    Arsenal's Martin Keown lets Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy know how he feels after van Nistelrooy missed a penalty

  • Man Utd v Arsenal

    Arsenal's Martin Keown (third right) mocks Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy (second right) after his penalty miss, at the end of the FA Barclaycard Premiership match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Manchester United drew 0-0 with Arsenal. 30/10/03: Arsenal players Lauren and Martin Keown were hit with four and three-match suspensions and 40,000 and 20,000 fines respectively, as the Football Association meted out punishment for the ugly scenes at the end of Arsenal's goalless draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. Ray Parlour has received a one-match suspension and a 10,000 fine. THIS PICTURE CAN ONLY BE USED WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF AN EDITORIAL FEATURE. NO WEBSITE/INTERNET USE UNLESS SITE IS REGISTERED WITH FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION PREMIER LEAGUE.

  • Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Manchester United v Arsenal

    Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy is pushed in the back by Arsenal's Lauren (second left) as tensions run high at the end of the match (l-r Kolo Toure, Lauren, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown and Ashley Cole)

  • Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Manchester United v Arsenal

    Manchester United's Gary Neville (l) and Arsenal's Martin Keown come to blows

  • Arsenal v Manchester United

    LONDON - MARCH 28: Manager Arsene Wenger of Arsenal argues with manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury on March 28, 2004 in London. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - AXA FA Cup - Semi Final - Arsenal v Manchester United

    Manchester United's Roy Keane stands over a stricken Robert Pires (floor) of Arsenal

  • Manchester United's Paul Scholes celbrat

    LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: Manchester United's Paul Scholes celbrate his goal recieving abuse from Arsenal fans during their FA Cup semi-final clash at Villa park in Birmingham, 03 April 2004.Manchester United defeated Arsenal 1-0 to reach the FA cup final being played 22 May. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN - - No telcos,website use to description of license with FAPL on, www.faplweb.com - - (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Manchester United v Arsenal

    Manchester United's Gary Neville slides in on Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes

  • Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy

    MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM: Manchester United's Ruud Van Nistelrooy celebrates scoring a penalty kick against Arsenal during their Premiership football game at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, 24 October, 2004. Manchester won 2-0. UK OUT AFP PHOTO/MAGI HAROUN NO TELCOS, WEBSITES SUBJECT TO DESCRIPTION OF LICENCE WITH FAPL AT WWW.FAPLWEB.COM (Photo credit should read MAGI HAROUN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Arsenal v Manchester United

    LONDON - FEBRUARY 1: Patrick Vieira of Arsenal lies on the ground while Ryan Giggs of Manchester United looks down at him during the Barclays Premiership match between Arsenal and Manchester United on February 1, 2005 at Highbury in London, England. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

  • Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Arsenal v Manchester United - Highbury

    Manchester United's John O'Shea (front) is congratulated by Roy Keane (top).

  • Soccer - FA Cup - Final - Arsenal v Manchester United - Millennium Stadium

    Arsenal's Jose Antonio Reyes is shown the red card

  • Soccer - FA Cup - Final - Arsenal v Manchester United - Millennium Stadium

    Arsenal's Patrick Vieira (R) is embraced by his team mates after scoring the winning penalty.


Aaron Ramsey has scored as many goals this season as he registered in his first five with Arsenal, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny are at the centre of a miserly defence while Olivier Giroud has a newfound belief up front and in Mesut Özil, Arsenal have an undisputed world-class player wielding the baton and conducting the orchestra. Now they are for real.

They travel to Manchester this weekend five points clear at the Premier League summit, with United eight adrift from them. For the first time in what seems like aeons, this is a meaningful fixture and United cannot afford to lose their fourth League match of the campaign.

United's squad has hardly altered, either, and now that David Moyes is showing signs of settling into his daunting task of succeeding Ferguson, they have some momentum. The managerial change would explain the markedly different starts United and Arsenal have experienced this season, although the state of their squads actually makes the chasm between the clubs unsurprising.

There are probably four players - maximum - in Arsenal's first-team who United fans might covet. Özil's a certainty, Kieran Gibbs has been the best left-back in the League this season, Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, too, probably, would feature in a mash-up of the two teams. Despite this supposed superiority, United just do not look as driven as Arsenal. The trophy drought and Wenger's contract (it expires next summer) have fuelled Arsenal's ambitions, only Moyes is unlikely to derive the same effort as Ferguson did.

Six United players are out of contract at the end of the term and five of them started in the three-out-of-four Champions League finals under Ferguson between 2008 and 2011. Hunger was essential to success at Old Trafford under Ferguson, who would look ahead to the next campaign before he had even hoisted the trophy, yet there are signs of the dreaded transition Arsenal are familiar with.

Moyes will relish the chance to take Arsenal down a peg on Sunday, though. A win against Liverpool is arguably distorting but winning in Dortmund, albeit in a group stage match, isn't. An occasionally ugly victory, it was a genuinely encouraging sign for Arsenal's annual chokers and suddenly, their fans are crowing on the forums and social networking sites, unable to resist aiming barbs at United. It's a luxury they've not enjoyed since Akon was top of the charts.

Neutrals will be pleased at this possibly brief return of the United-Arsenal antagonism, too. However toxic it became between 1998 and 2004 (the Metropolitan Police once intervened), their encounters were absorbing and they were the two best teams in the country. Now, Arsenal have the chance to humiliate United.