Arsenal v Man United no longer defined by rugged central midfield clashes of old
Local derbies remain the most hotly contested, eagerly awaited fixtures in England. But in Premier League terms, there's never been a contest as feisty as Arsenal versus Manchester United.
This is no longer England's showpiece game -- the two sides both finished outside the top four last season for the first time in the Premier League era. But during that 25-year period, these sides have collected more wins, earned more points and scored more goals than any other. The period when they dominated the top flight between 1997 and 2004, before Chelsea became a true force, remains a legendary and unsurpassed rivalry.
It was epitomised, of course, by the midfield clashes between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. The two most renowned defensive midfielders of their era, Keane and Vieira were both outstanding footballers and tough, aggressive tacklers, and their scraps became the most crucial part of Manchester United v Arsenal matches. There was antipathy but also mutual respect between them -- Keane said his battles against Vieira "made me a better player" and Vieira described Keane as his "favourite enemy." The decline of the Arsenal-United dominance, in the middle of the last decade, coincided with the decline of these two.
It's difficult to think of anything approaching a genuine personal rivalry in the modern Premier League. Football has changed considerably since Arsenal and United's dominance -- it's no longer so physical and aggressive and we no longer consider personal battles so crucial. A few years ago, the defensive midfielders in these clashes were based primarily around possession play: Mikel Arteta and Michael Carrick weren't naturally feisty players, but were excellent in possession. Their style felt like the antithesis to the Keane-and-Vieira, blood-and-thunder battles.
Now, there's a new clash between Arsenal and United's defensive midfielders, and again they feel somewhat similar stylistically. Granit Xhaka and Nemanja Matic are at very different stages of their Premier League careers, the former still trying to establish himself after an inconsistent 18 months, the latter a two-time Premier League winner widely credited with improving United's midfield since his summer switch from Chelsea.
But these are fundamentally similar players: tall, strong, relatively immobile, left-footed, good in possession without being genuine playmakers, capable of the occasional long-range thunderbolt. Is this the new model for defensive midfielders?
Xhaka has endured a curious Arsenal career thus far. He was omitted upon his arrival, took a while to play his way into Arsene Wenger's first XI, then endured some difficult moments with needless errors in front of his defence, and two dismissals prompting questions about his discipline.
In fairness, he recovered well and was excellent during Arsenal's run-in last season, the switch to a 3-4-3 formation arguably suiting him as much as any other player. He stayed in deep midfield positions with three centre-backs behind him and Aaron Ramsey was given free license to storm forward into attack.
That's largely the relationship at United too, between Matic and Paul Pogba. The latter is evidently an excellent all-round player, the type -- like Ramsey -- who needs free rein to burst forward into dangerous positions, but prefers doing so from deep rather than as a No. 10.
There are occasions when Jose Mourinho will deploy Pogba in that role, with two defensive midfielders behind him, but Manchester United's first-choice system this season features a Matic-Pogba axis. The Serbian international has made a positive start to his Manchester United career and has been helped by the fact United's defensive structure simple is very solid, and has been since Louis van Gaal's arrival in 2014.
In that sense, Matic was slotting into a good defensive structure, whereas Xhaka's occasional struggles have been because Arsenal often lack the requisite compactness when they lose possession, forcing Xhaka to cover too much ground.
This point -- mobility -- is probably the biggest question mark over both players. The rules of Premier League defensive midfielders have changed since the arrival of N'Golo Kante, who played pivotal roles in title-winning Leicester and Chelsea sides. Kante is a defensive midfielder, but he's an all-action livewire renowned for his energy, tenacity and stamina.
Neither Matic nor Xhaka possess that ability, and in the modern game in which intense pressing is a crucial ingredient in the tactical armoury of top sides, they feel somewhat limited.
That relative lack of running means Xhaka and Matic are unlikely to encounter one another this weekend. Xhaka will remain in a solid, left-of-centre position and be concerned primarily with the runs of Pogba, while Matic will do likewise and watch Ramsey. Fifty-fifty tackles between the sides' defensive midfielders are unlikely.
This all assumes Matic will be fit to start the game, as he limped off in the entertaining 4-2 victory over Watford on Tuesday evening, and on Friday Mourinho revealed that the midfielder is a doubt for the weekend. Without him, and with Carrick out injured, United would be forced to field Marouane Fellaini alongside Ander Herrera. Neither offers the defensive solidity of Matic -- Fellaini is physical but unreliable; Herrera is more mobile and occasionally excellent at marking opponents out of matches, but doesn't have Matic's positional discipline, which remains the most important attribute for a defensive midfielder in a side featuring Pogba. But Mourinho will be keen to start with Matic, even if he's incapable of completing 90 minutes, as United need to be very disciplined between the lines.
In truth, Xhaka and Matic are probably in the "second division" of Premier League defensive midfielders. Kante remains the most revered despite his limitations in possession. Victor Wanyama has been hugely impressive since joining Tottenham from Southampton, and his club's struggles without him are plain to see. It is Manchester City's Fernandinho, however, who has been the Premier League's most outstanding defensive midfielder this season.
Quick and purposeful with his use of possession and intelligent in a positional sense and capable of covering for both Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva on his own, Fernandinho has also improved his discipline from last season, when he was twice dismissed in the first half of 2016-17.
It feels like neither Xhaka nor Matic have entirely solved their sides' problem in front of the defence. Xhaka has yet to completely convince Arsenal fans, and while Matic has received rave reviews for his performances this season, the praise has been somewhat over the top, as if there's a determination to castigate Chelsea for daring to part with a 29-year-old whose performances dipped noticeably in the last couple of seasons.
This type of solid defensive midfielder is doubtless required if fielding Ramsey or Pogba in a box-to-box role. But it feels like other sides boast more cohesion, with and without possession, in their central midfield zones, with two or three players sharing responsibilities in a less compartmentalised way. Xhaka and Matic are both fine footballers, but it feels a long way from the glory days of Vieira and Keane.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.