Nigel Winterburn compares Arsenal’s title challenge under Mikel Arteta to George Graham’s reign

The bad blood in the Arsenal vs United rivalry runs deeper than you can imagine. Take the end of Invincible’s winning streak in 2004, the Battle of the Buffet, when Cesc Fabregas threw a pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson after a controversial penalty ended Arsenal’s record-breaking 49-game unbeaten streak.

“Arsene is still affected by that penalty decision all these years later,” says David Dein, former Arsenal vice-chairman, in his recent book Calling The Shots.

We all knew Wenger was a bad loser, but the story Dein tells after that decision shows just how bad.

Arsenal have been outstanding this season and sit eight points clear at the top of the league

Arsenal have been outstanding this season and sit eight points clear at the top of the league

“Arsene and I used to philosophize about things,” writes Dein. “He once made up the line that when he dies and goes to heaven and St. Peter asks him which way he wants to go, his answer will be, ‘The opposite way to the arbiters.’

Nigel Winterburn was a protagonist in another Old Trafford battle, this time in 1990, when his tackle sparked a mass brawl with Arsenal putting on two points and United one – although Arsenal still won the league.

“It was insane at that time,” says Winterburn, a two-time title winner at George Graham’s Arsenal when the fire really ignited between those clubs, and a two-time winner under Wenger in 1998.

It was. Past tense. Between 1993 and 2004 only Blackburn Rovers broke the title from United-Arsenal.

They meet Man United on Sunday, a game that was often fiery during Arsene Wenger's reign

They meet Man United on Sunday, a game that was often fiery during Arsene Wenger’s reign

But if you wanted to pick a date when the rivalry ceased to have any significance as a global phenomenon in that frenzied ‘Match of the Season’ manner now reserved for Manchester City vs Liverpool clashes, it would be an August afternoon in Old Trafford in 2011. United beat Arsenal 8-2 that day and Wenger looked emasculated on the touchline, his side no longer a serious rival.

A few days after that defeat, Wenger, in a desperate bid to restore his crumbling empire, undertook an insane supermarket rush on deadline day in the transfer market, taking five players. Some didn’t fare as well: Chu-young Park, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun. However, one of those signings was doing quite well: Mikel Arteta.

“I do not think so [just the 8-2 defeat] That gave me the opportunity, but it probably helped, it was probably another level,” Arteta said, recalling how he even came to Arsenal on Friday.

The duel lost much of its meaning after United beat the Gunners 8-2 in 2011

The duel lost much of its meaning after United beat the Gunners 8-2 in 2011

“I was lucky to get that call a few days before that loss and then have the opportunity to play for this club again. Circumstances are sometimes necessary to give someone the opportunity to experience something. Unfortunately it had to be [the 8-2 defeat]. It was a great result that day. But after that, the rest is history.”

Whether it was history is debatable. It was better. Arteta would lead the team to an FA Cup win in 2014 and Wenger’s team would win that trophy again in 2015 (Arteta was injured) and 2017 (he had retired from playing). Arteta, the manager, then won it for Arsenal in 2020. But history – the kind that involves a Premier League title – has yet to be made. Until now maybe.

Since 2013 and the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, United have embarked on a decline of their own, hastened by the loss of a legendary manager, meaning that game became a battle for Europa League places. A clash between Arsenal and Manchester United that matters in the title race feels like welcoming back an old friend.

Wenger looked shocked throughout the game and promptly signed a number of new players

Wenger looked shocked throughout the game and promptly signed a number of new players

“Having been at Arsenal every season for a long time, I’ve probably been the most excited about an Arsenal team since they moved to the Emirates in 2006, which tells you how much this team produces,” said Winterburn.

Winterburn says Arsenal’s revival reminds him not so much of the Wenger years as of a previous restart at the club he was involved with. When Graham took over in 1986, Arsenal had not won the league since double-winning 1971.

They’ve been associated with big names like Charlie Nicholas and eye-pleasing ballers like Graham Rix. Both would soon disappear as Graham imposed a more ruthless, aggressive and robust style on the team, one that Winterburn could embody. He came in 1987 from a Wimbledon team notorious for their aggression and famed for their team spirit.

One of them was Mikel Arteta, who won the FA Cup as Arsenal captain and later manager

One of them was Mikel Arteta, who won the FA Cup as Arsenal captain and later manager

“If you look at the seniors at the time, within a year and a half those seniors were gone,” he said. “And he bought players that he felt he could mold into a style of play.”

Arteta’s Barcelona-inspired philosophy of the game couldn’t be further from Graham’s. But his mentality, Winterburn says, is just as cold and focused. “It’s a different style of play, but what’s happening now is a bit like George’s takeover.

“Mikel has said it before, and I’ve said it for a long time: certain players were too comfortable getting nothing at Arsenal and he had to move a wide range of those players and the players he wanted along with those Upcoming academy players pick up Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka. It’s very similar to that.’

Nigel Winterburn argued that many of George Graham's qualities can be seen in Mikel Arteta

Nigel Winterburn argued that many of George Graham’s qualities can be seen in Mikel Arteta

The high-profile victims of Arteta’s reign were Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but there were others up the food chain who the manager decided weren’t for him, such as Sead Kolasinac, Lucas Torreira and Hector Bellerin. And that’s not to say his judgment was always spot on: he let Emiliano Martinez go and kept Bernd Leno. But the broad direction of travel and the players he brought in as a substitute have changed.

“By using the players you want and tailoring them to the playstyle you want, you can take them on the journey you want to continue,” says Winterburn.

“We have such a young team with huge potential. They hope for additions [Leandro Trossard signed last week and Jakub Kiwior is on his way] that the squad will continue to develop. What everyone wants to see when something exciting is developing is to put a trophy next to it.”

He felt new signings like Leadro Trossard's will

He felt new signings like Leadro Trossard’s will “further develop” the squad at the Emirates

Winterburn doesn’t mean they have to win the league this season for the revival to gain momentum. “You have to recognize where you are, what you want to achieve,” he said. “Opportunities open up over time, be it the chance to win the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League or other cup competitions. It just helps build momentum and people stop talking about how many years have passed since you won a trophy.

Winterburn’s favorite past memory is the 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March 1998, which was crucial in Arsenal winning the league by a point over United in Wenger’s first full season. “It was the outstanding win for me,” he said. “That gave us the belief to go ahead and win the title.”

A win for Arsenal on Sunday might not be quite of that magnitude. But it would be another important step on the way back.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-11661901/Nigel-Winterburn-compares-Arsenals-title-challenge-Mikel-Arteta-George-Grahams-reign.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 Nigel Winterburn compares Arsenal’s title challenge under Mikel Arteta to George Graham’s reign

Maureen Mackey

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