If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transported Manchester United back to an earlier era, the caretaker manager may be making two clubs feel nostalgic.
When Arsenal host United on Friday night, an FA Cup meeting will pit the sides fifth and sixth in the Premier League against each other. Solskjaer is an immediate reminder of the time it was English football’s defining match. “Always the closest rivals,” he said. “The games were just fantastic.”
United’s caretaker manager arrowed in on one of the best, remembered in part for Ryan Giggs’ extraordinary extra-time replay decider. He feels it determined two trophies. "The semi-final in 1999 is such an important game,” said Solskjaer. “When Peter [Schmeichel] saves the penalty, it gives us the advantage. If Dennis Bergkamp had scored, they would have won the double."
Instead, thanks to Solskjaer’s injury-time intervention against Bayern Munich, United registered a historic treble.
There will be no such repeat. United and Arsenal have lesser aims now. The inheritance of two recent arrivals in the dugouts ensures as much. This will be only the second meeting since 1986 to involve neither Arsene Wenger nor Alex Ferguson, authors of an epic series of contests. Unai Emery and Solskjaer form more of a mutual admiration society than predecessors who ended up as friends but whose enmity was often bitter.
"Obviously Arsene and the gaffer were the two longest-serving managers in my era and they were fantastic — an institution in their clubs,” said Solskjaer. “But Unai is tactically very good, so I think they've made a very good signing."
Emery was similarly complimentary about his counterpart in comments that also served as an indictment of the sacked Jose Mourinho. “It's a different team,” said the Spaniard. “It's the same players but they're playing with a big performance now.”
Solskjaer has travelled south with a 100 per cent record – seven wins from seven – and the breezy optimism to see the FA Cup tie as an opportunity, rather an unwanted distraction from the quest to secure a top-four finish.
Chris Smalling has resumed training but is unlikely to feature while Marouane Fellaini and Marcos Rojo are absent again. One centre-back who could play, for the first time since his red card against Bournemouth, is Eric Bailly. The Ivorian has had a stop-start season at Old Trafford but was reportedly targeted by Arsenal in their quest to strengthen an injury-hit defence.
Solskjaer sounded unworried. "I'm not surprised if they do [want him],” he said. “But that's just one of those things. There's always speculation and it's not a big surprise."
By restoring a feelgood factor, he could help United keep players, rather than losing them. One objective is to get David de Gea, who was outstanding when United won at the Emirates Stadium last season, to commit to a long-term deal.
Anthony Martial, a scorer in November’s 2-2 draw between these clubs, seems to be closer to signing a five-year deal. “I think the club is making progress,” Solskjaer said. “Hopefully we can have some good news in the coming weeks.”
If two men who connect these clubs, Arsenal’s United old boys Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, are injured, a third offers intrigue as Alexis Sanchez will make his first return to the Emirates.
Solskjaer warned that jeering him may backfire. “He’ll be involved,” he said. “I think he’ll love it if the crowd turn against him. As a player, pride kicks in and you think: ‘I’ll show all of you’. He’s been fantastic in training, his attitude has been spot on so hopefully he’ll enjoy the game.”
But Arsenal have become accustomed to targeting long-time friends. Their build-up included a day of paintball. Now for the football.