Winterburn compares Arteta to Graham ahead of United clash

‘What is happening now resembles when George took over’: Nigel Winterburn compares Arsenal’s title challenge under Mikel Arteta to his time under George Graham, as Arsenal prepare for a crunch clash with Man United on Sunday

  • Arsenal currently sit eight points clear at the top of the Premier League 
  • They play a crunch match against fourth place Manchester United on Sunday 
  • It is the first time in ten years the fixture comes between two title challengers 

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

‘Arsene is still niggled 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 tale Dein tells in the wake of that decision illustrates just how bad.

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

‘Arsene and I used to philosophise about things,’ writes Dein. ‘He once came up with the line about when he dies and goes to heaven and St Peter asks him which way he wants to go, his reply will be: “The opposite way to the referees.”’

Nigel Winterburn was a protagonist in another Battle of Old Trafford, this one in 1990, when his tackle sparked a mass brawl that saw Arsenal docked two points and United one – though Arsenal still went on to win the league.

‘It was insane through that period,’ says Winterburn, a two-time title winner at George Graham’s Arsenal, which is when the fire between these clubs was really ignited, and a double winner under Wenger in 1998.

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

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

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

A few days after that defeat, in a desperate bid to restore his crumbling empire, Wenger did a mad supermarket sweep of the transfer market on deadline day, bringing in five players. Some didn’t fare so well: Chu-young Park, Andre Santos, Yossi Benayoun. One of those signings did do reasonably well though: Mikel Arteta.

‘I don’t think it was [just the 8-2 defeat] that gave me the opportunity but it probably helped, it was another layer probably,’ said Arteta, reminded of how he got to Arsenal in the first place on Friday.

The clash lost much of it’s importance after United thrashed the Gunners 8-2 in 2011

‘I was lucky enough to get that phone call a few days before that defeat and then to have again the opportunity to play for this club. The circumstances are sometimes necessary for someone to be given the opportunity to experience something. Unfortunately it had to be [the 8-2 defeat]. It was a big result on the day. But after that, the rest is history.’

Whether it was history, is debatable. It was better. Arteta would captain 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 coach then won it for Arsenal in 2020. But history – the kind that involves a Premier League title – has yet to be made. Until perhaps now.

Since 2013 and the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, United went into their own decline precipitated by the loss of a legendary manager, meaning this fixture became a battle for Europa League places. An Arsenal-Manchester United clash that matters in the race for the title feels like welcoming back an old friend.

Wenger looked shell-shocked during the game, and promptly signed a number of new players

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

Winterburn says Arsenal’s revival reminds him not so much of the Wenger years but a previous reboot of the club, in which he was involved. When Graham took over in 1986, Arsenal hadn’t won the league since the Double-winning year of 1971. 

They were associated with big names such as Charlie Nicholas and easy-on-the-eye ball players such as Graham Rix. Both would soon be gone as Graham imposed a more ruthless, aggressive and robust style on the team, one that Winterburn might have been said to embody. He arrived in 1987 from a Wimbledon team notorious for its aggression and famous for its team spirit.

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

‘If you have a look at the senior players that were then, those senior players were gone within a year and a half,’ he said. ‘And he bought payers in who he thought he could mould into a style of play.’

Arteta’s Barcelona inspired philosophy of play couldn’t be further removed from Graham’s. But his mentality, says Winterburn, is just as cold and as focused. ‘It’s a different style of play but what is happening now resembles a bit George taking over.

‘Mikel said it before and I have said it for long time: certain players were too comfortable in achieving nothing at Arsenal and he needed to move a large selection of those players on and bring in the players he wanted, along with the academy players coming through in Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka. It’s very similar to that.’

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

The high-profile casualties of Arteta’s reign have been Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but there have been others down the food chain whom the manager has decided weren’t for him, such as Sead Kolasinac, Lucas Torreira and Hector Bellerin. And that’s not to say his judgment has always been spot on: he let Emiliano Martinez go and kept Bernd Leno. But the broad direction of travel and the players he has brought in as replacements has been transformational.

‘In bringing in the players you want and moulding them to the style of play you want, you can take them on the journey you want to go on,’ says Winterburn.

‘We have such a young squad with huge potential. You hope with additions coming in [Leandro Trossard signed last week and Jakub Kiwior is on his way] that the squad will keep developing. What everyone wants to see when you have something exciting developing is to put a trophy alongside it.’

He felt additions like that of Leadro  Trossard will ‘keep the squad developing’ at the Emirates

Winterburn doesn’t mean that they have to win the league this season for the revival to gather momentum. ‘You have to realise where you are, what you’re trying to achieve,’ he said. ‘Opportunities open up in periods of time, whether that be with the chance to win the Premier League, the Champions League, the Europa League or other cup competitions. It just helps build the momentum and people don’t then keep talking about the gap of how many years since you won a trophy.’

As for Winterburn’s favourite memory from the past, it’s the 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March 1998, which was decisive in Arsenal winning the league from United by a point in Wenger’s first full season. ‘That was the standout victory for me,’ He said. ‘It gave us the belief to go on and win the title.’

A win on Sunday for Arsenal won’t perhaps be quite of the same magnitude. But it would be another significant step on the road back.

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