Arsenal versus Manchester United used to be the game of the season, but the mighty have fallen
In 1999, when Manchester United became Treble winners, a meeting of the teams who finished 12th and fifth would have involved Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham. In 2004, when Arsenal were Invincibles, it would have been Southampton versus Newcastle.
More than half way into this season, Arsenal and Manchester United are 12th and fifth. Or they are now, anyway. United have risen from the depths of 14th in October, but Arsenal could be as low as 15th by the time they kick off.
They are the two clubs with the most points in Premier League history – 1,979 versus 2,199 – but now the standings are a sign of how the mighty have fallen. Life after Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson has proved problematic for each. Managers with record number of FA Cup and Premier League triumphs have vacated the stage. Two of their former players, Mikel Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, are charged with proving they are more than simply nostalgia acts.
While Liverpool, the club Ferguson famously claimed to have knocked off their perch, have as many points as United and Arsenal do between them, comparisons with the past are unflattering, and not merely in a midfield battle that pits a wantaway Granit Xhaka, stripped of the captaincy for responding abusively to Arsenal fans, against a declining Nemanja Matic in a department where there used to be Patrick Vieira against Roy Keane.
Take Arsenal’s injury-hit but execrable defence, which has already conceded 13 more league goals than Wenger’s side did in the whole of the 1998-99 season when, as no United fan needs reminding, Arsenal did not even retain their title.
The various failings of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and David Luiz render them an insult to the memories of Tony Adams and Martin Keown. It is uncontroversial to suggest none of the group Arteta has inherited would get in the teams of Wenger’s golden first decade, very few, with the possible exception of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, would figure in too many sides of his second 10 years.
Those with the ability tend to lack the application. Arsenal at least used to promise technical excellence and slick passing. Even that was lost in 2019, when they procured fewer points than Crystal Palace.
Solskjaer’s United have attempted to reconnect with elements of their old identity: the home-grown part, the emphasis on quick attacking, the fearless approach against the best. Their best days suggest they have rebounded since hitting rock bottom, their worst that the descent is continuing. “We will consign this decade, definitely,” said even the usually upbeat Solskjaer. “But 2020 sounds good to me.”
United are further into the rebuilding project than Arsenal and, perhaps unlike the Londoners, definitely did not have the worst transfer window last summer. Yet there are suggestions that neither is a destination club any more: the camps of Aubameyang and Paul Pogba, supposed jewels in their respective crowns, are hinting they may have to leave to realise ambitions. Failure could mean each gets further away.
Yet each is yet to recover from disastrous displays of ambition that illustrated a shared fixation with big names has backfired. Each sought a short cut to success two years ago and regressed. Supposed statements of intent were indictments of mismanagement at executive level.
They gave Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez the two worst contracts in football; indirectly, part of the exorbitant cost was the eventual loss of Aaron Ramsey and Ander Herrera, players each could have kept had they not distorted the wage bill and prompted others to want more.
Those summer departures are reasons the midfield that used to be battleground could instead be a wasteland tonight. A formerly titanic duel has been stripped of Vieira and Keane, then Ramsey and Herrera and finally Scott McTominay. The endlessly emblematic Scot would not have got close to a place in Ferguson’s finest midfields. Wholehearted but limited, he is United’s player of the season to date, a sign of decline and hope alike.
Hope can sustain them, and United’s supercharged young forwards give them more, but reality has been depressing. What was a glamour game may instead serve as an illustration of a slide from grace. Arsenal versus Manchester United used to be the game of the season, but the seasons have changed. So have they.