Saturday 7 December 2019

Ian Rush: Lack of title hope shows how the mighty have fallen

Arsenal will find life difficult when Arsene Wenger leaves, just as Manchester United have since Alex Ferguson retired. Miles Willis/Getty Images
Arsenal will find life difficult when Arsene Wenger leaves, just as Manchester United have since Alex Ferguson retired. Miles Willis/Getty Images

Ian Rush

There is little doubt the clash between Arsenal and Manchester United is the match of the weekend. Yet there was a time not that long ago when these meetings often defined the year. Remember the six seasons between 1997 and 2003?

United and Arsenal finished first and second in five of those campaigns, with Liverpool's second-place finish in 2002 breaking the duopoly.

But 2003 was the summer Roman Abramovich entered English football and since then the narrative has changed. A big two became a big three and with Liverpool's periodic challenges combining with the arrival of Manchester City into the arena of big payers, the context of these United-Arsenal clashes changed.

Now, when Arsenal play United, or when either club meet Liverpool, it is to determine who will finish third, fourth or fifth.

Chelsea, this year, are simply so far ahead of the pack that the title already, even in November, seems destined to finish up with Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, while City, with their deep pockets and depth of talent, are the likeliest runners-up.

That Arsenal, who have spent considerably less money than the other four clubs, remain among such elite company says so much about the job Arsene Wenger has performed there.

Among Arsenal supporters, some grumbling about Wenger continues to be heard, a frustration that you can partially understand, given that nine years passed between their FA Cup victories in 2005 and 2014.

Reflect

Yet, when you reflect on what has happened in English football, where Arsenal are unable to compete financially with City, United and Chelsea, Wenger's success in delivering Champions League football for 16 years straight just has to be applauded.

There is a stubbornness about him that I admire, that refusal to pay over the odds for players and that awareness that there is a time when players have to be sold. Think Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.

When Wenger goes, Arsenal will find life difficult - just as United have since Alex Ferguson retired.

That is often the case at clubs where a manager enjoys so much power and influence over a long period of time. Even going back to Matt Busby's time, his retirement left a major hole for his successor to fill. A similar story was told at Leeds after Don Revie left to become England manager.

Liverpool managed the transition a lot better than most, Bob Paisley proving to be even more successful than Bill Shankly, winning 20 major trophies in nine seasons, before he made way for Joe Fagan, who won the treble - European Cup, League Cup and league title - in his first season.

After Fagan came Kenny Dalglish. His first year brought the league and FA Cup double.

I played under those men and appreciated the incredible sense of awareness they had. They just knew the game inside out, so much so that Liverpool went through transitional periods and no one even knew a period of change was ongoing.

Contrast that to Old Trafford today. Two seasons ago, when United won the league in Ferguson's last campaign, they reached this stage of the season in second place, with nine wins from 13 games.

Languishing

Last year, at this juncture of the season, they were languishing in eighth. This morning they lie seventh, 13 points adrift of Chelsea.

You wonder how it has come to this. And it comes down to the problems created by the managerial takeover. Ferguson's experience guided United to the title in his final season.

But since he left, they have been chasing their tail, spending £150m on six new players this season. Those players need time to adjust but in the modern game, pressure is immediately applied if results are imperfect.

Also imperfect is their sense of timing. Injuries have piled up, Luke Shaw getting a hamstring strain, to add to the problems Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, David De Gea, Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo, Rafael, Radamel Falcao, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Jesse Lingard are suffering from.

Given the amount of money, and hope, United invested in Falcao, the fact he has started only three games since he arrived at the club is a major inconvenience. So clearly there are problems at United that can only be solved by time and patience.

On a separate note, the biggest issue of the week surrounded Dave Whelan's comments about Jewish and Chinese people.

I know Dave and regard him as an excellent chairman, one of the best in the League, a man who brought success to Wigan through hard work and clever leadership.

As a man, he says what he thinks. Yet in the world we live in today, you cannot say what Dave said about Jewish or Chinese people. The FA are looking into the issue and the proper disciplinary procedures should be applied.

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