Soccer

EPL-o-Rama: Arsenal, Manchester United Trading Places

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It feels like it’s been a long, loooooong time since the golden era of the “body swap” comedy in Hollywood. During the 1980s all you needed to get a script green-lighted was a goofy premise of two people changing bodies, Judge Reinhold, a montage set to Yello’s “Oh Yeah” and — boom — you had 89 minutes of pure cinematic gold.

Alas, it’s been quite some time since the heyday of classics like “Vice Versa.”

If you wanted to make a soccer version of this time-honored Hollywood trope, look no further than Sunday’s Manchester United/Arsenal game (11 am., NBCSN) where the combatants have clearly swapped places. This time it’s United — last year’s title winners — the club that’s stuck in a rut, wondering what the future holds, while the Gunners are flying and a win away from their best all-time start in the Premier League era with 28 points through 11 matches.

The two clubs haven’t, ahem, exactly traded places. Arsenal, for all its struggles since it’s last trophy in 2005, are still guided by Arsene Wenger, whereas United are now in the first couple months of the David Moyes era. Also, United haven’t sold off a bunch of their best players to rivals since they held on to Wayne Rooney in the summer.

[Related: Aaron Ramsey: Fantastic Strike Cements Arsenal Atop EPL Table]

Fulham v Manchester United - Premier LeagueEven so, there are some of the questions that have plagued Arsenal the last half-decade could be applied to the current United team, which sits in eighth place — eight points behind Arsenal. For one, United’s transfer policy from the summer could be questioned the same way Arsenal’s had been for the last couple years. Wenger’s reluctance to spend in the transfer market was one of the criticisms lobbed at the Frenchman, instead putting his faith in youth.

United’s transfer activity in the summer basically started and ended with Marouane Fellaini. Fortunately for Moyes he’s found a gem in youngster Adnan Januzaj. Otherwise many of the players United have put their faith in (and helped win the title last season), like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have underwhelmed, while veterans like Ashley Young and Patrice Evra have seem their form dip.

For all the uncertainty swirling around Old Trafford, United and Moyes have steadied the ship, going eight games unbeaten. A loss Sunday to Arsenal might end their slim hopes of retaining their title. It might be early November, but an 11-point deficit would be quite the mountain to climb.

The sample size remains small for Arsenal. From 1997-2004 the club finished either first or second in the league. From 2005-2013 it’s been either third or fourth. Since 2004 there have probably been something like 4,201 different stories written this is the year Arsenal finally wins a trophy. Why does this year feel different?

During the week even Rooney downplayed the Gunners chances, saying “We’ve seen before that they’ve been in the top two until February or March and then faded away.”

Signing Mesut Özil, for one, helped galvanize the club in late August and represented a clear sign of intent that the team might no longer be a farm team for Manchester City and Barcelona. The move could, down the line, be comparable to United signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal last year, as the Dutchman helped carry the Red Devils to the 2012-13 title on the strength of his 26goals. The arrival of the German playmaker also turned Aaron Ramsey from a player with loads of potential into, perhaps, the best player in the Premier League through the quarter-poll. The 22-year-old Welshman scored his 11th goal in all competitions Wednesday vs. Borussia Dortmund.

There used to be a joke that Ramsey’s scored so infrequently that when he did it signaled the death of a celebrity. Well, Abe Vigoda is still with us and dancing on staff with Phish, so the Ramsey curse appears to be lifted. You can point directly at Ramsey — a young, two-way midfielder — as the type of player Manchester United sorely lacks. How’s this for Internet archive searching, United still have a story on their website from 2008 listing how the club had agreed on a fee for Ramsey from Cardiff City.

[Related: Chicharito: Miss For the Ages vs. Real Sociedad]

Quietly the Per Mertesacker/Laurent Koscielny defensive partnership has given Arsenal a strong backbone — allowing only nine goals through 10 matches.

Perhaps some of the old frailties and cracks that always seem to doom Arsenal show up, but if you look back to the second half of the 2012-13 the Gunners have only lost twice in Premier League play, a March 3 loss to Spurs and an Aug. 17 defeat to Aston Villa in the curtain raiser for the new season. That’s a fairly long string of games and consistent results. The only other losses in that period are an FA Cup loss in the Fifth Round to Blackburn, a 3-1 setback in the first leg of the Round of 16 Champions League match with Bayern Munich, a loss to Borussia Dortmund in this year’s Champions League and a League Cup loss to Chelsea. As I argued back in the summer, a strong season based on how Arsenal finished last year shouldn’t be unexpected.

One of the other recent criticisms of Wenger’s clubs was an over-reliance on youth. The average age of Arsenal’s starting XI in the win over Liverpool last Sunday was 27.2. Guys like Mertesacker, Santi Carzola, Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna are all veterans of major international tournaments. Even a player like Ozil, who might “only” be 25 has played in the Champions League and World Cup. It’s a far cry from when Wenger had to throw the likes of Carl Jenkinson and Ignasi Miguel to the wolves vs. Manchester United in that famous 8-2 defeat in August 2011.

As it stands, the only question hovering over Arsenal is whether or not the club can keep up it’s hot start, not a bad question to face. United would surely change places.

Maybe Reinhold can play Moyes in the movie.

Related: Tottenham Made the Wrong Call Leaving Hugo Lloris in Match Following Knee to the Head

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