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2019 the year when Man United-Arsenal jumped the shark

Their tepid match at Old Trafford last night was a stark reminder of how far the two clubs have fallen.

Arsenal's David Luiz (left) and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford battle for the ball.
Arsenal's David Luiz (left) and Manchester United's Marcus Rashford battle for the ball.
Image: EMPICS Sport

AT TIMES, IT was like a sitcom that has ‘jumped the shark’ – the term being a reference to an infamous episode from the fifth season of the show ‘Happy Days’ that has become shorthand for, as Google defines it, “the moment when something that was once popular no longer warrants the attention it previously received”.

Not so long ago, Man United-Arsenal felt like a season-defining encounter — the Man City-Liverpool of its day.

There were countless great matches — the 1999 FA Cup semi-final, the Keane-Vieira tunnel game, the 2005 FA Cup final to name a few.

For a number of years prior to the onset of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, the Premier League frequently felt like a two-horse race between the phenomenal pair. Indeed, in five seasons, encompassing 1997-98 to 2002-03, Arsenal and Man United finished in the top two on four occasions.

And even thereafter, these matches still felt special. Granted, they weren’t always filled with world-class players during the Ferguson-Wenger years. In 2011, United memorably dumped Arsenal out of the FA Cup, beating them 2-0 with a makeshift midfield featuring John O’Shea, Darron Gibson, Rafael and Fabio.

Nevertheless, the consistent intensity of these games was rarely matched in other Premier League fixtures, and this quality was perhaps epitomised by the Roy Keane-Patrick Vieira rivalry. And on the rare occasions when these battles were not so compelling and closely fought, there was at least the guaranteed entertainment, such as when the Red Devils humbled their arch rivals 8-2 in 2011.

There was also a genuine sense of antipathy between the two teams in those peak years — Pizzagate and Martin Keown’s infamously over-wrought mocking of Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty miss are two memorable examples.

Last night, however, felt like the complete antithesis of these previous games. Instead of hardened pros like Tony Adams and Peter Schmeichel, you had relatively untested teenagers in Mason Greenwood and Bukayo Saka, with the latter becoming the youngest player ever to start in 55 Premier League meetings between the two teams, at 18 years and 22 days old.

Previously, the game often tended to bring out the best in the two teams’ star players — think of the wonder goals scored by Thierry Henry and Ryan Giggs over the years.

By contrast, on Monday, it was telling that Scott McTominay — a good solid pro but by no means a star — was comfortably the best player on the pitch. Pepe, Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Lucas Torreira were among those to produce sub-par displays.

The first 40 minutes were particularly abysmal to watch — it was a scrappy, stop-start affair with cheap free kicks and stray passes commonplace. The atmosphere felt low key, befitting a Premier League match featuring teams placed 8th and 11th in the table prior to kick-off.

It improved after the break, but another half as bad as the first was virtually inconceivable.

McTominay’s moment of brilliance was a glimpse of the skill and excitement the fixture once routinely produced.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser seemed like a metaphor for the contest itself, as it invoked brief excitement, followed by prolonged disappointment, and then brief excitement again.

Most of all, the match served as a stark reminder of how far both sides have fallen since their glory years.

The result meant the Red Devils had accumulated their lowest points tally after seven games for 30 years.

The sense that Arsenal seemed content with a point, as Unai Emery suggested afterwards, was an indication of their limited ambition.

During the Ferguson and Wenger years, United and Arsenal were Champions League regulars. The Gunners enjoyed 19 consecutive group stage appearances in the competition (1998/99–2016/17) under the French boss, while the Red Devils registered 18 (1996/97–2013/14) when led by the legendary Scot. Only Real Madrid’s record of 21 and counting is superior.

Meanwhile, under Emery and Solskjaer, they are in danger of turning into Europa League regulars at best.

Certainly, on the evidence of last night, hopes of a top-four finish seem fanciful. Man City and Liverpool remain as far ahead as the points difference of last season suggests, while though they have been similarly inconsistent, Chelsea, Tottenham and even Leicester have all arguably been showing greater potential and have been invariably better to watch this season.

While the arrivals of Emery and Solsjkaer were hailed at the time as a necessary breath of fresh air to reinvigorate the respective embattled clubs, both now seem to be going backwards as they attempt to restore past glories.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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