Manchester United’s plan yet to come together while Arsenal surged with Ozil

Early-season struggles and signing of Ozil forcing a rethink of champions' prospects

Rio Ferdinand has had to re-evaluate his assessment of Manchester United's prospects after a tumultuous start to the season.  Matthew Peters / Getty Images
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Rio Ferdinand looked over the harbour in Yokohama, during Manchester United’s pre-season tour.

“Chelsea and City, I don’t see anyone else challenging us for the title,” he said. “Tottenham and Arsenal might have a little push, but I can’t see anyone breaking into that top three.”

Three months later and Ferdinand is again by the sea, in San Sebastian, for his side’s game against Real Sociedad. He turned 35 yesterday, and he has re-evaluated his opinion of who can win the Premier League.

He provides a one word answer when asked about his change of mind.

“Ozil,” he says. “When we spoke about Arsenal in July, they hadn’t signed him. He’s changed the fortunes of the club, galvanised the dressing room. When you sign a world-class player, every other player wants to step up and get to the level that he’s at.”

United were the beneficiaries when they signed Van Persie from Arsenal last season.

“I saw the reaction from the players when Robin walked in,” said the former goalkeeping coach Eric Steele. “Saw the nodding heads and looks of approval from every player. Even if they said nothing, their body language said it all.

“This wasn’t a player being promoted from the youth ranks, nor someone few had heard of. This was a bona fide, top-class forward at the peak of his career and United had signed him from a huge club. Robin’s arrival lifted everybody because he’s a fantastic player.”

Despite their best efforts, United did not sign the same calibre of player in the close season and endured their worst start since 1989/90, when they finished 13th. Form has improved and United are eight games unbeaten, though they have yet to win against a side in the top half of the table. They have another opportunity, against leaders Arsenal, at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Until Roman Abramovich’s money arrived at Chelsea in 2004, United and Arsenal were the biggest rivalry in English football.

“Arsenal are our biggest rivals,” the former United captain Roy Keane said in 2004. “They’ve been our biggest challengers in the last 11 years. Games against Liverpool, City and Leeds mean a lot to the fans, and I can understand that, but Arsenal are our biggest challengers. The rivalry is based on respect and it goes both ways.”

That changed as Arsenal’s trophy drought, since 2005, continued.

“There aren’t the same personalities or clashes as in the past for United v Arsenal games,” says Ferdinand, who is in his 11th season at Old Trafford.

“Our rivals in the last two years have been City. Before that it was Chelsea, before that Arsenal. Arsenal look like they could be in contention but it’s too early to say whether they are going to be genuine contenders because we’re not even at Christmas. That’s when I look at the table after four matches in 12 days and think: ‘Right, it’s us and them’.”

United trail Arsenal by eight points after 10 games.

“We’ve been 12 or 14 points behind and come back to win the league,” Ferdinand says. “We want to get a good run of winning games together, 10 or 15 matches, that gets us back at the top. We haven’t had consistency this season, not just in the big games, as people have pointed out. We have to win every game. You win titles by beating the best teams and we haven’t done that so far this season. We can’t continue like that.”

Ferdinand concedes that an adjustment has been required after a summer of change at Old Trafford.

“We’ve been getting to know what the new manager wants and building an understanding,” he says. “There has to be a bedding-in period and we’ve had that. Now you can see there’s more of an understanding between the players and about what the manager wants. You can’t expect everything to be the same after a change of manager, but our manager has got some great ideas and it’s up to us to implement them on the pitch.”

United, in an uncustomary eighth place, are improving steadily, but their five wins have come against teams in the bottom eight. United have used more players than any other team; none of their outfield players has started all 10 league games.

Thirteen teams have conceded fewer goals than United, performances have not convinced and the slim confidence from better results is still fragile.

The 1,800 travelling fans in Spain sang David Moyes’s name in the wind and rain of San Sebastian as they watched with interest the side he will be given time to build draw 0-0. A win against Arsenal will give United their biggest boost of the season.

“It’s a massive game for both clubs,” Wayne Rooney says. “If they win then they’re 11 points clear of us. If we win, we close it to five, keep our run going and edge closer to them.”