Saturday 22 July 2017

Brian Kerr: The once unmissable Arsenal and United rivalry is now irrelevant

Fallen foes whose bitter battles once determined titles are reduced to squabbling for minor placings

Arsenal's Martin Keown is elated following Ruud Van Nistelrooy's penalty miss in 2003. Photo: Getty
Arsenal's Martin Keown is elated following Ruud Van Nistelrooy's penalty miss in 2003. Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

How times have changed. There was a time when Roy Keane was a finger-pointing, neck vein-popping symbol of the intense dislike that existed between Manchester United and Arsenal.

This week, Keane was just as agitated but his anger was driven by frustration because this fixture used to represent so much more than squabbling for minor league placings.

Apathy reigns where once antipathy flourished. Nobody is more qualified than he to identify the disparity.

Eight years ago this week, the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal reached its zenith on the field when they met in a Champions League semi-final.

United, helped in no small measure by Cristiano Ronaldo, would reach that 2009 final but lose it, as they would again two years later, to the outstanding Barcelona. They have not reached a final since and only once managed a quarter-final appearance.

Arsenal would also reach another quarter-final before, famously or infamously, managing to out-do United with their quirky qualification streak, reaching the knock-outs every year since, but never progressing beyond the round of 16.

Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters
Arsene Wenger. Photo: Reuters

Whatever about their Champions League decline - one shared by their English rivals - less than a decade ago, this fixture was dominant in domestic terms; it was pivotal because it usually determined the season's winners or losers.

In 17 seasons from 1996 to 2013, the pair would annex 13 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, six FA Cups and two League Cups.

Only on four occasions in that period did another club - Chelsea three times and Manchester City once - break their stranglehold on the title.

Yet the last decade has witnessed a steady decline in their domestic dominance, their European influence and, in consequence, the essence of a once great rivalry.

Where once this fixture was correctly viewed as one of significance, now it has become a rivalry reduced to an irrelevancy not seen for more than 20 years of combat.

It is summed up by the fact that United are so detached from the top four, Jose Mourinho feels he must weaken his team tomorrow in order to re-direct his focus towards Europe's secondary competition in order for the club to return to the elite.

United won the last of their record 20 league titles in 2013 and have been in transition, with three managers since, while Arsenal, in transition without changing manager, have not come close to bridging the now 13-year gap between league titles.

During the 2003-04 season, the rivalry was so intense, it spawned a thousand headlines, such as "Pizzagate", when the contents of a diminishing buffet were flung in the direction of Alex Ferguson with the pinpoint accuracy of delivery we had come to expect from Cesc Fabregas.

Arsenal would display more hunger that season but in recent times both clubs have been forced to dine off the discarded crumbs from others, whether from the riches of moneyed rivals City and Chelsea, or even the rags to riches of Leicester.

From alleged racial abuse to flurries of red cards - Sol Campbell even got banned once for kicking Eric Djemba-Djemba up the arse in a Charity Shield match! - this fixture suddenly exploded from the mid-90s into a toxic, unmissable fixture on the calendar which meant as much to the players as it did their supporters.

Snarling

But today, there will be no snarling in the tunnel between a Patrick Vieira and a Keane and the lightning rods for so much tension, from Martin Keown to Vieira, Keane to Ruud van Nistelrooy, have left the stage to be replaced by rather meeker, less substantial characters.

And instead of warring with each other, these two proud clubs are more concerned with internal battles.

On the one hand, Mourinho's United are dogged by recurring injuries to the likes of Marcus Rojo and Juan Mata, and latterly Luke Shaw and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, players who were brought in to replace some of the fading stalwarts like Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney from the Ferguson era.

Since Ferguson left, there has been an inconsistent plan in terms of recruitment complicated by different tactical approaches from three new managers, each signing players without a clear idea of what way they wanted to play.

Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao have all come and gone.

Mourinho's current squad isn't really his own either and they are struggling to gain confidence while he is struggling to find confidence in them; his direct approach works for some, like Marcus Rashford and Henrik Mkhitaryan, but not for others, as his fraught interaction with Shaw and Anthony Martial demonstrates.

There is a natural edginess within the squad as many players wonder what their future is under Mourinho. This summer's recruitment will reveal their fate. He may have some discontent in his dressing-room but he is in charge of it.

There was an expectation of flashpoints with other managers but in general he has been a restrained figure, yet he has been frustrated, along with the many now suffering fans, at the inability to wipe away inferior teams so frequently, measured by an astonishing 14 draws in the league.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League through either route will frustrate him. He and his supporters know even the masterful plan unveiled against Chelsea, of stifling Eden Hazard using Ander Herrera, won't be enough to give them the upper hand at the highest level.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are slowly playing out an end-game involving a disheartened manager and a squad of equally disenchanted players.

Arsene Wenger's days must be coming to an end. Months ago, I wrote that only a Champions League success would convince the vast majority of Arsenal fans that he should stay.

After the humiliation to Bayern Munich, even the usual spring surge hasn't materialised and another FA Cup win would only be a nice end to a somewhat torrid season for a great manager and club man.

Ferguson, who finished by winning a league title, never allowed himself to become bigger than his club, even if it often seemed that way.

Sometimes it feels as if Wenger (pictured), who might finish by winning nothing, feels like he is.

His stubbornness in terms of playing style and the recruitment of too many similar, brittle attacking players has charted the decline.

The game has moved on but Wenger hasn't imposed himself on his squad and they can't impose themselves on big games. They are too often exposed against better teams.

Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi have proved to be a liability. Xhaka's disciplinary record had been there for everyone to see before he came to the club.

To see the nominal holding midfielder, Francis Coquelin, being brushed off by Eden Hazard in February's defeat with such ease served as the perfect metaphor for Arsenal's slow, inevitable drift from being imperious to impotent.

Wenger just hasn't been able, or willing, to restore their former reliable spine, whose influence once dominated contests between these two titans. It is a legitimate criticism of the manager.

Persisting with Mezut Ozil and Theo Walcott, who flit in and out of games reflects the manager's listlessness. Wenger is not enjoying the criticism and you wonder why he doesn't feel prepared to leave.

Far from being a situation where he seems to be in control of the club, the slippage in performance has led to a diminishing of authority, including his own, throughout the club.

Nobody seems to be in charge and there is no clear plan as to what happens next.

The frustrated attitude of Alexis Sanchez epitomises a lack of leadership behind him on the pitch and from Wenger in the dressing-room.

Then again, as United fans are still discovering, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

Regardless of this fixture's irrelevance in league terms, it is sandwiched between the Champions League semi-final stage, another distant dream for both clubs.

Ronaldo, this week's hat-trick hero, scored twice for United in that 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal.

As these sides squabble for the minor league placings, a Champions League final will be staged on British soil on June 3 - a poignant reminder of what life used to be like for the Premier League clubs in Europe.

Influence

Ronaldo and his continental rivals occupy a different sphere of influence now.

Between 2005 and 2011, English clubs were a dominating presence in Europe; in 2007 and 2009, the Premier League accounted for three of the four semi-finalists.

From 2008 to 2012, England had a total 14 teams reach the last eight of the Champions League, six more than La Liga, in second.

But since 2012, there has been no English winner, rarely a semi-finalist. Spain, meanwhile, have had six teams in the last four finals, including the upcoming one.

Spurs and Manchester City were both defensively exposed and knocked out by Monaco, a young team brushed aside by an ageing Juventus on Wednesday last.

Arsenal's familiar failings were exposed also. Their decline has been steady and regressive, at home and abroad.

Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale and, of course, Ronaldo, have been lured away from the Premier League by the promise not only of sporting riches but rich sporting success. David de Gea, Eden Hazard and Dele Alli may soon follow.

England's clubs also suffer from the intensity of their league; they can't afford to play weakened teams as there are few easy games . That is an important factor but the lack of tactical nous and technical guile in comparison to the truly top European teams is still alarming.

But back to today.

At least the attacking promise of United's newer players like Mata, Rashford, Martial, Pogba and Mkhitaryan combined with Mourinho's still canny ability to build teams, while moulding an effectively defensive unit, give them hope they can recapture the glory days of competing for the big prizes again.

For Arsenal and Arsene, the current impasse and uncertainty denies their followers of even that hope.

The stagnation of recent seasons needs to be stemmed and won't be lifted by another FA Cup win. Where are the new triumphs going to come from? At this stage, it is hard to know.

Irish Independent

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