Now that Nani’s premature prediction that only Chelsea will challenge Manchester United to the title has completely gone up in smoke (thankfully), Alex Ferguson seems to be retraining his sights on the old foe.
Arsene Wenger has rarely gotten the better of the wily Ferguson in the mind games stakes – and in truth, I think only Jose Mourinho has ever trumped Fergie in that department – so it’s no surprise that Ferguson is stoking up the flames again now that Arsenal are emerging from their slumber to become genuine title contenders
Ferguson went out of his way to take a swipe at Wenger earlier today when he defended Stoke City’s (United’s next opponents) physical style of play. He said:
I suppose Arsene Wenger has been one of (Stoke’s) main critics, but then he does go off on a tangent at times. For instance, he criticised our pitch after they lost here before Christmas and I was at a loss to understand why.
It seems rather deliberate to me, especially with the timing of it. Now that Chelsea have fallen some distance behind in the title race – SIX points behind leaders United who have a game in hand – Ferguson is suddenly bringing up Wenger’s comments that Arsenal lost their game against United because of the OT pitch (which in all fairness, doesn’t look world class). That game was like three weeks ago!
But Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have come a long way from the time when they were considered also-rans in the title race. Wenger has patiently built his young team on the foundations of his attacking ethos, and it’s all coming to fruition now. His team is now more resillient and balanced than it’s ever been in the last few years.
Now Wenger himself will have to show that he’s as resillient as his young charges. How he responds to Ferguson’s taunts will go a long way in determining Arsenal’s season.
For a long time, Wenger has had a chink in his armour – he gets rattled when his team loses, or when things just don’t go his way. He is after all, the meticulate Professor, the idealist, the perfectionist.
And I think Ferguson knows it. When United play Arsenal, they invariably set up to stifle them, and when that happens, Wenger gets frustrated and he loses the plot. Ferguson seems to be latching on to this weakness with his latest comments, highlighting Wenger’s short-sightedness in defeat which leads him to blame the opposition’s physical tactics, or even playing surface.
The potency of Ferguson’s mind games hinge on the fact that Wenger can’t afford to ignore those comments. Naturally, the media will quiz him about it and he’ll have to respond. His players, coaching staff, and fans will have read the comments. He has a responsibility to respond on their behalf.
Ferguson too is not immune to such tactics, as Mourinho demonstrated. Ferguson’s problem is his pride, and he gets rattled when his absolute authority is challenged. So Mourinho’s irreverent manner riled Ferguson up, and when Fergie gets mad, nothing good can come from it.
Maybe that’s what Wenger should do. He should just go: “What did that old hag say? Whatever. He’s 70 now. He probably doesn’t even remember what he said…”