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In March 2004, Manchester United went to Highbury, took Arsenal on physically and stole a 1-1 draw with an 86th-minute equaliser. They could not prevent Arsenal going through that season undefeated, but the effects were seen the following year as United twice came from behind to win 4-2 at Highbury, despite the dismissal of Mikael Silvestre.
Arsenal, if anything, have progressed even further towards purism since then, and yet Saturday lunchtime’s meeting at the Emirates Stadium between England’s two leading teams will not be another contest of rapier and broadsword. United have changed their spots.
They are not, admittedly, going to spin complex skeins of passes with quite the aesthetic verve of Arsenal, but their front four is developing an understanding that is producing the sort of movement Sir Alex Ferguson must have dreamed of when he first dared combine such an audacious quartet. Indeed, the Brazilian commentator Alberto Helena Junior acknowledged that United’s use of a front four this week in comparing the side with Brazil’s majestic World Cup winners of 1958.
It was Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994 – and in their rather less successful showing last summer – who first mooted the idea of a team without forwards. The team of the future, he said, would play a 4-6-0, with midfielders interchanging in a blur of constant motion to confound their markers.
Roma began to play almost that way last season: their shape was usually described as a 4-2-3-1, but with Francesco Totti, more naturally a shadow striker, operating as the lone front man, the shape was perhaps better described as 4-2-4-0. The impressive form of the Montenegrin forward Mirko Vucinic this season means Roma’s shape has returned to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1.
United, though, continue the experiment, even if there is something paradoxical about borrowing an idea from a side they thumped 7-1 in the Champions League last season. There were, inevitably, teething troubles. Critics moaned that, with Louis Saha injured, they lacked a natural leader of the front line.
Despite all the doubts, the central pairing of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tévez, both players who would normally be expected to play off a front man, is beginning to gel: a run of four goals in four successive games for the first time in more than a century tells its own story.
Perhaps the Premier League is frustrating in the predictability of its strata, but that is the way of football now in every leading European league, and what is striking this season is how committed three of the top four – now that Chelsea, giddy in the post-Mourinho honeymoon, have joined in – are to attacking football.
Poor Rafael Benitez, so recently seen as the calm sage of modernity, the meticulous defensive planner alongside Jose Mourinho’s petulant pragmatism, Arsène Wenger’s professorial aestheticism and Ferguson’s growling passion, seems to have been left behind, even though Liverpool remain unbeaten in the league this season and came within 10 minutes of beating Arsenal last week.
Given Arsenal twice hit the post – and on both occasions the rebound flew out too quickly for players to control shots at an open goal – they will probably feel they should have won at Anfield. Yet the point, and the fact it was gained late, has been taken as evidence, even by Wenger, that they have the mental resolve for the grind of the title race.
There is some truth in that, but, particularly given how Arsenal dominated the second half, it would be at least as valid to regard the draw as two points dropped.
If Arsenal beat United on Saturday – or even if they draw – that will not matter too much. The problem would come if they lose and so, having had a relatively straightforward start to the season, they found themselves having taken just a point from their first two real tests.
Football has a habit of thwarting expectations on such occasions, but even if it is not the classic it could be, Saturday’s meeting should be far removed from the beauty and beast clashes of recent years.
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