Strictly not passing: Wenger and Arsenal face another test of philosophy
They were once the pass masters, but Arsenal, the team who played like Barcelona long before the football world became enamoured with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, are beginning to look a little more ragged these days.
On Sunday they need to be at their very best to avenge the humiliating 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford last August, but the reality is that, shorn of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, their famous passing gold standard seems to have become devalued.
It is not just that Swansea, everyone's new favourite passing team, beat them 3-2 last Sunday and at times outpassed the passers, with 55 per cent of the possession to Arsenal's 45 per cent.
Looking lost: Robin van Perise, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta
That was the fifth match this season in which they have been outpassed by the opposition – and previously only five teams managed to outpass the Gunners through the entire 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons combined.
YOU'RE TAKING THE MIKE
When Mike Dean was given Manchester United’s game at Arsenal few would have been surprised to hear Sir Alex Ferguson groan. The United boss was banned for two games and fined 10,000 for a tirade at Dean (right, with Theo Walcott). But Arsenal have won none of their last 10 League games with Dean in charge.
True, in three of the games this season in which they have had less possession – against Liverpool, Manchester United and Fulham – they have had players sent off, though the red cards have come relatively late in the game.
Emmanuel Frimpong's against Liverpool was the earliest after 70 minutes, Carl Jenkinson was sent off in the 76th minute at Old Trafford and Johan Djourou on 78 minutes at Fulham.
And in the other game in which they had less possession, at Chelsea, they still ended up winning 5-3.
For Arsene Wenger the stats are not the sign that their high standards have slipped, but more down to a subtle change in style.
Tricky: Arsene Wenger is working on his tactics
Direct: Using wingers like Theo Walcott makes Arsenal more direct than they used to be
'I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,' said Wenger.
'But it's down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based].
'When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise.
It was not a conscious thing but it's just we found Gervinho, who did well, and we tried to find a system that can accommodate Walcott and Gervinho.'
It is true that Arsenal are marginally more direct – no bad thing, some might say, for a team who once wanted to walk the ball into the net.
Both Gervinho and Walcott's instinct is to head for goal rather than cut in and pass. However, it has left Arsenal vulnerable in other areas.
At times against Swansea, they were dominated by the promoted side, unable to control the game with their passing as they once could or as Barcelona demonstrate on a weekly basis, by using possession of the ball as a defensive tactic to kill the game.
'I feel that in weaker periods of our game we are a little bit more in trouble because we can't keep the ball as well,' said Wenger.
Injuries: A spate of injuries has left Ignaci Miquel playing out of position at left-back
Then there is the issue of frailty at the back, which has also been affected by the use of more attacking wingers.
'We are maybe a bit more vulnerable on the wings defensively sometimes, because we have real strikers (playing wide).'
That is a problem that has hardly been helped by an astonishing run of injuries to full-backs: Bacary Sagna, Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Andre Santos all suffering long-term injuries, with stand in leftback Thomas Vermaelen also out and likely to miss today's clash with United.
Ignasi Miquel, ironically a Barca graduate, was exposed when played out of position at left-back at Swansea, as Djourou has been at right-back on a number of occasions – notably at Fulham, where he was sent off after struggling in the second half.
With Nani and Antonio Valencia ready to exploit such vulnerability, Miquel and Djourou are likely to be in for another miserable afternoon.