Throughout the earliest years of the English Premier League, it was all Manchester United and their dominance. Sir Alex Ferguson managed to turn United into a force, dominating the English game for 20 years. One of his biggest rivals was Arsene Wenger, who enjoyed similar successes with Arsenal and also being at the helm of his respective club for two decades.
Once upon a time this was the matchup to keep an eye on each season, as each time fought for the title tooth and nail, with neither giving an inch. The two clubs boasted some of the best the league has seen: Scholes, Henry, Keane, Vieira, Giggs, Bergkamp, Beckham, Fabregas, Ronaldo – the list could go on and on. Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira captained each team for a majority of this era, both fighting on the pitch and with each other, in perhaps the most memorable personal rivalry seen in the EPL.
Now, the grandeur of this matchup has gone, as their most recent match has showed us. Where Keane and Vieira once led each team out, it was now Ashley Young and Granit Xhaka – a major decline in quality. Where Arsenal had the most frightening attack of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, they now have to rely on Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng carrying the load. Ronaldo and Giggs used to fly down the wings for United, and Beckham used to fire in crosses with ease, now United don’t have any true wingers or attackers to speak of. It’s tragic how the Premier League’s once hottest contest has been reduced to nothing more than a simple meme.
It’s been spoken about to death about the issues surrounding Man United and their fortunes following Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. A myriad of poor transfers, managerial sackings, player departures has left the club in dire straits, with all hope now resting on Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and their youth products breaking into the team. It is telling when Man United have spent upwards of £800m since 2013 and fielded a team that was spearheaded by Marcus Rashford playing on one leg.
Simply put, it has come down to poor decision making by the chief decision makers at the club – namely Ed Woodward. United at one point could get nearly any player they wanted for a cut price, and every player wanted to play for them. This was in large part due to the two-pronged management of Sir Alex as the manager, and David Gill as the Chief Executive. They both left the club together in 2013, a sorry mistake that the club rues to this day. With Woodward at the helm of transfers, the club’s ability to acquire and manage their squad has been thrown out the window. Where the club was once as stable as a skyscraper, has now seen them have no less than four managers since Ferguson retired, after he himself managed the club for nearly 27 years.
There are many examples that can be used to highlight Woodward’s ineptitude, but the recent examples would be the most telling. In a time where United’s most hated rivals – Liverpool and Manchester City – have begun to dominate the league, it must be eating the fans up to see how they failed to capitalise on any potential they may have had.
Jose Mourinho led the club to 2nd place in 2018, their best finish since 2013, and he was rewarded with a contract extension earlier that year. It was evident that while the team had its moments, reinforcements were needed particularly in central defence. Mourinho fought tooth and nail to get a centre back, as the club was linked to Harry Maguire, but Woodward didn’t put enough faith in Mourinho’s vision to follow through with the necessary transfers, especially as their surrounding rivals were strengthening in all areas. The following season had a sour tone, with Mourinho eventually being sacked late in 2018. It is telling of the poor decision making of Woodward, to reward a manager with a new contract, refuse to back him in the transfer window, then sack him. It is also telling that every manager that has been sacked by Man United has spoken negatively not of the club, but of the way it is being run behind the scenes.
Solksjaer took over after Mourinho and momentarily brought back the good times, but these didn’t last, and they had to settle for a paltry 6th place. In the summer of 2019, the club finally seemed to align with a manager, with Ole’s plan to sign British talent, blood the youth and install some fight and passion back into the club. The plan seemed to work, with the club’s three signings of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James and eventually Harry Maguire all impressing thus far. The new vision made a point to remove any deadwood in the club, with Alexis Sanchez – the player some see as the symbol of the rottenness in Man United – being loaned out as well as Chris Smalling. It all seemed to go swimmingly until the club made fatal errors. Romelu Lukaku was sold very late in the window, and while many saw him as not good enough for the football that United want to play, the fact remains that he is a proven goal scorer and was not replaced. With the departures of Lukaku and Sanchez, United’s attack was vulnerable, relying solely on Anthony Martial, Rashford and a handful of youth prospects. It is no coincidence that while their defence has finally looked competent, their attack has suffered dramatically. Ander Herrera was also allowed to leave on a free transfer to PSG, again without any replacement. This decision left United’s midfield at the standard of a mid-table team, barring Paul Pogba.
The transfer window seemed to start off swimmingly, but a lack of planning and depth acquisition has left the squad thin and desperate. The inconsistent start to the season has proven this, and now the pressure is all on Solksjaer to figure out something, before he becomes the fourth manager to be sacked in seven years.
Though Arsenal haven’t won the league since 2004, Arsene Wenger kept the club stable and consistently in the Champions League for more than a decade since their invincible season. Mind you, this was following the building of the Emirates Stadium, where Wenger had to make do with a shoestring budget and a lack of willingness to invest from Arsenal’s infamous owner, Stan Kroenke.
A string of FA Cup wins in 2014, 2015 and 2017 under Wenger seemed to spell that the good times were coming at Arsenal, and their transfers made a significant improvement as the board seemed to be more willing to invest. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were some of the big signings made by the club, with Arsenal even finishing 2nd in 2016. Unfortunately, this good form didn’t last, as despite the FA Cup win in 2017 Arsenal missed a spot in the Champions League for the first time in years.
Many had called for Wenger to resign after this season, as it would have been a bittersweet end to a wonderful era, but his contract was extended for a further season as he backed himself to return the club to the Champions League. The signings of Alexandre Lacazette and Aubamayeng seemed to finally solve their striking woes since the sale of Robin van Persie to United in 2012, but the disastrous swap deal of Alexis Sanchez and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was a mess for both clubs involved, and Arsenal unfortunately missed the Champions League for the second straight season.
Wenger eventually left in 2018, with Unai Emery coming in to replace him. The change seemed necessary and invited, with Emery wanting to emphasise a pressing system and an improvement on the defensive structure, as he notably signed Lucas Torreira and Sokratis among others. While again in 2019 they came close to returning to the Champions League, as has been the theme they missed out once again, falling short to their hated rivals Tottenham Hotspur once again. The signs of improvement were there however in Emery’s first season, but it was clear they needed to restock some problem areas in the squad. Immediately in the window, Arsenal went out to sign Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney, David Luiz and loaned in Dani Ceballos. A great window by the club, perhaps the first in a while.
Unfortunately, whatever work was done in the window has so far been undone. Nicolas Pepe has not yet looked the player he was at Lille – granted he is still adapting, and the team haven’t quite played to his strengths. David Luiz has been a mess since joining the club and Ceballos has been in an out of the side, despite being a far better playmaker than any of the preferred trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira. Their defence is now praying for the speedy and full recoveries of Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin, both coming off of knee injuries, and Kieran Tierney is still working his way into the side following surgery before the start of the season.
Though Emery showed positive signs last season, this season he has seemed to have taken a step back. The number of shots that Arsenal have conceded has been staggering, including a total of 31 shots allowed against the struggling Watford, while the other end of the pitch has seen little in the way of creativity. As mentioned, Aubamayeng has been carrying the attack almost on his own, as Pepe is still adapting, Lacazette is injured and there is no creativity coming from the midfield. The match against United highlighted this. This was a United team for the taking, even at Old Trafford, yet arguably the worst United squad in EPL history outplayed them and really should have won, and Emery has to shoulder some of the blame.
Against United, Emery once again fielded the midfield trio of Xhaka, Torreira and Guendouzi. Torreira was trusted to be the most advanced midfielder, despite Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos being far superior creators, and Emery’s defensive approach with one of the worst defences in the league is confounding. You simply cannot rely on a defensive approach with that sort of midfield and backline, especially when it’s clear that Arsenal’s attacking options are greater than their defensive options. Had it not been for a defensive error from United, Aubamayeng’s clinical finishing, VAR and a string of missed chances by United – including one or two great saves from Bernd Leno – United would have surely won it. Now, like United, their frailties and poor decisions have been put on display.
Where to now?
For United, the question remains over whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right man to lead them going forward. While some positive signs are there, the lack of planning and foresight from all involved at the club have so far proven detrimental and have very much put a damp in their season at this stage.
As for Arsenal, Emery will have to hope he can change the tactics and lineups to suit his players, before the club’s stakeholders lose faith in him. The board also need to wake up to themselves, but that’s something that has been said for years. Let us just hope that these clubs will finally return to their glory years sooner rather than later.