Manchester United vs. Arsenal
Sunday November 10 2013 | 11:00 am ET
Old Trafford, The Seat of Evil, Manchester, England
SBN Manchester United coverage: The Busby Babe
TV coverage: NBCSN
My hate is pure
I hate Manchester United. It's an odd hate, though, because it's unique. Other teams in sports that I hate, I don't respect. Teams like the Miami Marlins, or Stoke City, I don't feel like they should even exist. I wish relegation and contraction on them. Some I have respect for their quality, but their style is in some way insidious or wrong to me. That's Chelsea. Then there's teams that I hate but in an odd, familial way - the sibling rivalry where I want desperately to beat them, but also kind of want them to do well otherwise (partly so my team can be the one to beat them). That's Tottenham, that's Purdue, that's the Bulls.
Manchester United is different. They're the ancient enemy. They're Sauron. But I still respect them in a weird way, even while I hate them. Simply seeing Sir Alex Ferguson's face triggers my fight-or-flight response, but I have no qualms saying he's one of the greatest managers ever. For the past several years I've struggled to figure out exactly how they're good, but they always are and I'm fine saying that. But with that said, their success makes me feel ill, and I want nothing more than to end it.
With Ferguson gone, replaced by David Moyes - a good manager who may end up succeeding, but who may also just be in over his head - that may actually be a legitimate possibility. A win at Old Trafford would go a long way towards sending them back to the Shadow.
A Klingon proverb
"...Revenge is a dish best served cold. And it is very cold in space." - Khan Noonien Singh
A lot of players have left Arsenal in the past five years or so. Some I still love. Some I was angry with for a while, but the anger faded to a calm distaste, for one reason or another. Some I laugh at.
None can match the vitriol that I still hold for Robin van Persie.
There aren't a lot of intangibles that I care about in sports. I think for the most part that stuff like Heart and Desire is massively overrated, and I really don't care much if someone leaves one team for another to get more money. This is the athlete's job, as much as we all care about it, and they have the same right any of us would have to make the most of their marketable skills, if they so choose.
But I still have space in me for loyalty, and I don't think those are mutually exclusive. Robin van Persie wanted money, as much as he says he and the little boy he's imprisoned in him want to win. That's fine. He couldn't get that at Arsenal at the time, so he left. I'd be angry still if he'd handled it differently, but it wouldn't be a logical anger.
But he did it without class, without honor, without loyalty. He threw his then-teammates and manager under the bus to get what he wanted - teammates and a manager who had stood by him through untapped potential, through injury after injury after injury. I don't think Robin van Persie owed Arsene Wenger his signature on a contract, but he damn well owes him something.
Now Arsenal are top of the league, Alex Ferguson abandoned little Robin in the North, and an Arsenal win would, according to some, cast United out of the title race altogether. van Persie disagreed with Wenger and Ivan Gazidis on "the way Arsenal FC should move forward," but now as then, it looks like the guys in charge are the ones who knew what they were talking about.
It's going to be 39° overnight in Manchester. It is very cold in space.
The final challenge
Win this, and it's no longer a question. We are title challengers.
Whether fans of the team or not, it's seemed like all year, people have been desperately searching for reasons why Arsenal can't contend. The loss to Aston Villa. Losing to Chelsea in the Whatever The Hell It's Called Cup with half a team. Losing to last year's Champions League runners-up at home. But the first game of the season was a (very) long time ago, nobody cares about the League Cup, and Borussia Dortmund are an extremely good team.
We only have one striker! We don't have a good striker! Per Mertesacker is slow! We should have bought a new goalkeeper! Match after match these are shown to be wrong, overstated, or simply irrelevant. As the wins pile up - against Liverpool, at Dortmund, even the one from the last day before the transfer deadline against Tottenham Hotspur - the criticisms are starting to fade. In a week's time we've had to play the presumptive title challengers in the league (a 2-0 win) then the second-best team in the supposed best league in the world (a 1-0 win) and now we go into Old Trafford looking to finish the hat trick.
I don't care if Manchester United are in first, second, eighth, or twentieth. A win at Old Trafford means something. And with the resume this team has built so far this season, what it would mean for Arsenal would be a final announcement that a title challenge is real, can be sustained, and is not an early-season fluke. It guarantees no silverware, but the doubters will pretty much have to accept something.
If Arsenal win at Manchester United, they are a good team that can win things.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Unless the match is an absolute fiasco (which we all know can happen, or at least those of us who have been around since at least 2011), all is not lost by a poor result.
Like I said above,
I don't care if Manchester United are in first, second, eighth, or twentieth. A win at Old Trafford means something.
That's because it's goddamn hard to do. Over the past five seasons (that's 2008-09 through 2012-13), their home win percentage has been 84%, 84%, 95%, 79%, and 84%. In the same seasons, Arsenal's home win percentage has been 58%, 79%, 58%, 63%, and 58%. It is tremendously uncommon for an away team to get three points at Old Trafford.
So while a win would certainly quiet some outside noise, a draw or even a well-fought loss won't tell us as much. Frankly a draw would be an acceptable result, while still a somewhat disappointing one. A failure to win does not have to spell doom for Arsenal's season. Do not forget that.
What is yet to come
Usually we do a joke prediction, but I'm actually going to make a real one this week.
We're going to win, 2-1.
I talked to Aidan earlier, and his suggested lineup jives perfectly with my assessment of the squad as it stands on 9 November.
Sagna | Koscielny | Mertesacker | Gibbs
Arteta | Flamini
Ramsey | Ozil | Cazorla
With a bench of Fabianski | Vermaelen | Monreal | Wilshere | Rosicky | Bendtner | Gnabry (or Walcott, if he's fit).
This is not going to be a fun match to watch. We are not going to enjoy it while it's happening. It's going to be hard-fought, stressful, and nerve-wracking. But if it goes the way that I think it will, the rest of our day on Sunday is going to be really enjoyable.
Let's see what we're made of.