Manchester United vs Arsenal: The decline of a once great Premier League rivalry

Manchester United vs Arsenal was always talked about as one of the games of the season.

The two clubs went head-to-head for the title in the early 2000s with legendary managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger vying for top spot.

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Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are two of the greatest managers in Premier League history

But those days are long gone with Manchester United still struggling in the post-Ferguson era and Arsenal finding their feet under Unai Emery.

Both clubs appear to be miles away from challenging Manchester City and Liverpool for Premier League success.

In fact, Arsenal and United even missed out on Champions League qualification, finishing fifth and sixth respectively last season.

And from aiming for Premier League titles, the priority now seems to be trying to return to the top four.

When the two sides meet on Monday, United will not have a Ruud van Nistelrooy or a Wayne Rooney leading the line.

Instead, they could be relying on 17-year-old Mason Greenwood or Anthony Martial, who is not fully fit.

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Mason Greenwood could be called upon against Arsenal
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Old Trafford boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer feared Marcus Rashford could be sidelined ‘for a while’ with a groin injury after being forced off in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat to West Ham.

United’s no.9 options are light after failing to sign a replacement for Romelu Lukaku, who joined Inter Milan for £72million in the summer.

The Manchester United of old would never have gone into a season without a recognised striker.

Rashford and Martial have featured through the middle this term, but have spent the majority of their careers playing as wingers.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will not have a player like Patrick Vieira to control and dominate the midfield.

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Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira had a long-standing rivalry during their playing days

Instead, they are likely to be relying on Granit Xhaka, who has come under-fire for his early-season form, which included giving away a needless penalty in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham.

Manchester United addressed their leaky defence by making Harry Maguire the world’s most expensive defender after paying Leicester £80million last month.

While Maguire and Victor Lindelof have shown signs of becoming a good pairing, they are no Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

And Arsenal’s first-choice defensive partnership of David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos is a far cry from Martin Keown and Tony Adams.

Both managers seem to be under pressure, too.

Solskjaer has won just five of his 17 matches since being appointed permanent United boss in March, while Emery felt the wrath from a section of Arsenal fans after his players blew a 2-0 lead to only draw at Watford earlier this month.

Emery has alleviated some of the pressure with three successive wins, but questions remain over his side’s defensive frailties.

Despite Arsenal’s upturn in form and Solskjaer reportedly receiving the backing of Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward this week, some fans are jokingly billing Monday’s clash ‘El Sackico’.

It is another reminder of how far both clubs have fallen.

Reminiscing about his old battles with a Manchester United side in their pomp under Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsenal legend Keown told talkSPORT: “You talk about aura, just picture it; players who were almost like Football Gods and you’re stood in the tunnel and there’s like a halo around them.

“We’re playing them at Old Trafford and we’ve got to go into that cauldron, the fans are expecting them to win, the players are expecting to win…

“That aura has gone I’m afraid.

“It’s disappeared, it’s stripped away and it takes years to get back.

“You can get it back by doing it in a certain way, you have certain types of individuals, winners, people who will stop at nothing to get there.

“But that’s what’s missing from Manchester United. There’s no fear anymore.

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Martin Keown and Andy Cole battle for the ball in 1999
Getty Images – Getty

“You go to Old Trafford… if Rochdale can go to Old Trafford expecting to get a result, and they lost 6-0 recently in a league game [against Peterborough in League One], then anyone can go there and get a result.

“Back in the day, people were expecting the ball in the back of the net in the first minute, in the second minute. We were going toe-to-toe with Manchester United so we didn’t have any fears when we went there, but we were worried about the rest of the teams in the league because of the aura, but that’s now gone.

“The aura is back for Liverpool, it’s back for Manchester City, and that’s the task for Manchester United, to get it back.”

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Martin Keown famously clashed with Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2003
AFP – Getty

Where has it all gone wrong for Manchester United?

It was always going to be difficult for the club following Ferguson’s departure in 2013 – and it comes as no surprise that a Premier League title has eluded them since the Scot left.

The Red Devils have had four managers in the past six years; David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Solskjaer.

Big transfer fees and money were spent on the wrong players in recent years, including Alexis Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, four players who massively underperformed at Old Trafford.

Manchester United legend Roy Keane tore into the club’s players after their defeat at West Ham, saying, ‘it’s scary just how far they have fallen’.

“I don’t know where to start,” said Keane, speaking on Sky Sports.

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs a positive result against Arsenal
AFP or licensors

“I knew they weren’t in a great place but I am shocked and saddened by how bad they are. You can lose a game of football but everything about United was lacklustre.

“No quality. A lack of desire. A lack of leaders. A lack of characters. It is a long way back and it is scary just how far they have fallen.

“There was a feel-good factor for Ole at the start and he needs three of four transfer windows.

“But if you’re not getting results and lose matches like today, the pressure builds and builds. You won’t get time.

“I have known Ole for a long time. I can tell looking at his eyes he is fuming and disgusted.”

Where has it all gone wrong for Arsenal?

Arsenal have needed a commanding centre-half for a good few years now.

They signed Shkodran Mustafi for £35million from Valencia in 2016, but after a string of error-prone displays, the German is yet to play a single Premier League minute this season.

Only Watford (18), Norwich (14) and Chelsea (13) have conceded more goals than the Gunners so far this term.

Last season, former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour claimed Emery needs a whole new back four.

Following a 5-1 thrashing at Liverpool, he told talkSPORT: “We all know the problem. Defensively, they’re just not good enough. They’re all over the place at the back. They’ll always give you a chance.

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Unai Emery told Shkodran Mustafi he could leave Arsenal earlier this summer
Getty – Contributor

“I couldn’t see Arsenal winning. I couldn’t see them getting a point.

“I’ve played with so many good defenders at Arsenal. We had the famous back four: [Nigel] Winterburn, [Lee] Dixon, [Tony] Adams, [Steve] Bould, [Martin] Keown. Then you had Sol Campbell coming in, as well as Lauren and Ashley Cole.

“They’ve got to look at all four positions at the back. If you’re going to concede goals like that, you’re never going to have any chance of trying to win the league.”

Whatever the result on Monday night, both sides are a long way from their glorious past and their once great rivalry has dwindled.

But with both sides looking to place some faith in young players we might just see some classic encounters sooner than we think.

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