Arsenal's decline has softened the rivalry between the Premier League's two greatest managers
It is a sign of Arsenal's comparative decline that Arsène Wenger no longer seems to irk his counterpart at Manchester United as he once did. Following Sir Alex Ferguson's compliments for his rival, the Frenchman could receive an even more terrible blow if his counterpart goes on to declare his trade union solidarity with a fellow member of the League Managers Association going through tricky days. With luck, we will be spared that when Wenger's side do battle at Old Trafford on Sunday.
It is detrimental to the entertainment value that reasonably good manners have taken the place of a feud between the teams. While it would be unfortunate if there were new confrontations, people still remember the piece of pizza thrown at Ferguson in October 2004 when a United win at Old Trafford had seen Arsenal's unbeaten run come to a halt at 49 Premier League matches. Wenger's side has declined since then and so, in consequence, has the fieriness.
That has been a loss. British comedy relies on the class issue and such overtones enhanced the rivalry in days gone by. Considering that both men are millionaires, it ought not to matter but one person is instantly identifiable as the former apprentice toolmaker in a factory and the other as the graduate with a master's degree in economics. Little, one imagines, could have vexed Ferguson more than the supercilious tone when Wenger reacted to his claim in 2002 that United were superior by retorting that, "Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home."
The pangs of nostalgia were keenly felt this week when Ferguson complained of a five-match touchline ban imposed by the FA last season on the grounds that United produce an abundance of England internationals. How one wished to hear a scornful Wenger examine this unusual argument and muse on just how many fine footballers a person has to develop before he is granted a special exemption from the rules. In truth, there is now less cause for the managers to wrangle.
Arsenal did blow a good chance last season to take the Premier League title, but by and large the clubs have been in separate spheres. Ferguson will have been giving his attention particularly to Chelsea and, of late, the noisy neighbours, Manchester City.
Wenger pursues his established policy, which will not be causing alarm at Old Trafford. He, too, wanted to sign Phil Jones and while it was anticipated that the Blackburn Rovers defender would prefer United in any case, Arsenal were never likely to go to extremes with their bid.
In the latest edition of their revealing and well-sourced book Arsènal, Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher dwell on the fact that Wenger's annual budget of over £100m for football operations, which includes signings and payments to players, is often directed on rewarding those who have come through the ranks. That is laudable, but seems to complicate efforts to acquire footballers.
Attempts to buy a centre-back have been laborious. A deal to take Gary Cahill from Bolton may be possible before the summer window closes on Wednesday night, but limited money does prolong the whole matter. So it is that Arsenal will head for Old Trafford with everyone appreciating that they take on the champions while the manager is still shaping the squad.
Wenger is a willing martyr to the grandeur of the Emirates Stadium, which will ultimately be recognised as a great generator of much-needed cash when its costs and those of the associated property development are paid off. On a bad day, the support feels it is being fobbed off with promises and nebulous visions of a golden age to come.
There is scope for uproar at Old Trafford, too, given the £480m debt that the Glazers have considered reducing with a partial flotation of the club, but unrest is still restricted while Ferguson keeps on winning trophies. Regardless of appearances, he is a counterpart to Wenger in his knack of handling the finances with care. A substantially rebuilt line-up, which seemed to appear overnight, was, to some extent, paid for by the coup that saw Cristiano Ronaldo sold to Real Madrid for £80m in the summer of 2009.
Ferguson, with the great arena of Old Trafford gradually modernised, has never had to tolerate the sort of stadium issue which affects Wenger. The Frenchman has looked at the mercy of events instead of being in command of them.
With hindsight, it could be understood that Cesc Fábregas was kept for a year too long. His form and value dipped before the transfer to Barcelona. While that was offset by Manchester City's purchase of Samir Nasri at the startling price of £25m for a footballer with less than a year remaining on his contract, the Arsenal squad had been weakened further.
In consequence Wenger is left to scramble, with the Rennes holding midfielder Yann M'Vila close to signing for £22m. If Gervinho's work in Wednesday's admirable victory over Udinese is any guide, Arsenal still know how to locate newcomers who will enhance the side. None the less, Wenger has much to do before the rivalry with Ferguson is fully restored.