Arsene Wenger recorded his first ever win over Jose Mourinho when Arsenal defeated Manchester United at the Emirates last season, and he will hope for a repeat performance when the two sides meet again on Saturday (17:30 GMT, live on BT Sport).
The 2-0 win in May represented Wenger’s first win over Mourinho in 16 competitive meetings but while the result was satisfying, the three points eventually proved futile in Arsenal’s attempt to make the top four. They finished fifth, with United a place back in sixth.
Arsenal’s triumph in the FA Cup for the third time in four seasons at least provided some silverware but it did little to lift the overriding feeling of negativity surrounding the club. Wenger stayed on, but without Champions League football or a likely title challenge, this campaign hinges on securing a return to European football’s premier club competition.
The Gunners gave their goal difference a boost with a convincing 5-0 win at home to Huddersfield on Wednesday. Alexandre Lacazette gave them an early lead before a double from Olivier Giroud and further goals from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil added gloss to the scoreline in the final 20 minutes or so.
It was Arsenal’s fifth win in their last six in the league – a run of form that has them looking more likely top-four occupants than they had seemed following three defeats in their first eight matches of the campaign. The impression persists that they are a solid top-six side but just a little less potent offensively and less solid defensively than some of the other contenders at the top of the table.
The season is still relatively young, but a split slowly seems to be emerging inside the top six. Manchester City are well worth their status as the bookies’ favourites to take the Premier League title, while United currently look likely to run them closest. That would leave Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur to fight it out over the final two spots in the top four.
Despite finishing behind Arsenal in the league last season, Man Utd’s triumph in the Europa League provided them with a Champions League berth and meant that optimism reigned ahead of the new season. That has been backed up by a good start both domestically and in Europe, although certain underlying tensions do still remain.
United emerged victorious from a potentially awkward trip to Watford on Tuesday. They went three goals up inside the opening 32 minutes, with Ashley Young scoring twice and Anthony Martial notching the other, but were still made to sweat when their hosts pulled it back to 3-2 late on. A Jesse Lingard strike calmed nerves and gave them an eventual 4-2 win.
Jose Mourinho said afterwards that he was happy with his side’s attacking output, although in truth Man Utd’s victory was more a result of clinical finishing that provided goals at key moments than outright dominance of high-quality chances. It was, though, a third consecutive league victory and one that positions them as City’s most viable challengers.
The problem for United and Mourinho is that Man City are playing so well and picking up so many points that the improvements they themselves have made have been overshadowed. In that context, complaints over the cautiousness of Mourinho’s tactics in certain fixtures and reservations about his public manner have gained more traction than they might have otherwise. More trophies will be required in order to justify his approach.
With the Manchester derby to come next weekend, United really need to take all three points on Saturday to keep themselves within reasonable distance of their local rivals. That will not be an easy task. Arsenal have defeated Man Utd at the Emirates in each of the last two seasons and have won all seven of their home league fixtures so far this season.
If Ozil and Sanchez play as well as they did in the recent win over Tottenham, Arsenal have a good chance of emerging triumphant. However, the more likely outcome is a tight and cagey match in which United just about edge themselves to victory.