Grace to grass: The outrageous decline of Arsenal and Man United

By Mirror: Monday, September 30th 2019 at 12:57 GMT +3 | Football
Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy flanked by Arsenal players in a past match [Couretsy]

When you think of classic rivalries of the Premier League era, few come bigger than Arsenal and Man United.

Over the years they’ve butted heads in more thrillingly hot-tempered encounters than you could count.

From the epic Keane-Vieira battles, to Pizzagate, Henry’s flick ‘n’ volley, Keown’s assault and everything in between.

What was once the biggest clash in the football calendar comes round for its latest installment at Old Trafford on Monday night in a clash that neither can ill-afford to lose.

After both suffering indifferent starts to their Premier League campaigns, their pursuits of a top-four finish are already looking far from certain.

But how did these once-great heavyweights of English football fall so far from grace?

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Decline

The clear contrast between the two sides’ catalysts for decline is obvious.

Arsenal went from Invincibles to also-rans almost overnight, as the new Emirates stadium replaced their Highbury roots and bled Arsene Wenger dry of any funds to significantly improve his playing squad.

Wenger had delivered arguably the finest domestic season seen by any Premier League team in history, but spent the next decade and more holding on to Champions League football for dear life as one star after another skipped off to more prosperous surroundings.

United similarly were at the mercy of Sir Alex Ferguson and his retirement, and the failed attempts of those who replaced him have left the club in unfamiliar territory.

But there’s more to it.

These two clubs have been rivals in the Premier League for decades [Courtesy]

Cycle

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

One of Fergie’s strong points was always knowing when a players sell-by date was due and offloading them before it became a burden on the club.

From Mark Hughes to Nicky Butt, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and even David Beckham, Fergie knew when their best days were behind them.

He admits the only player he regrets selling was Jaap Stam - but it was always made clear that no player was bigger than the club.

The problem being was that as Fergie reached retirement, he didn’t have time to action his next cycle and introduce players capable of carrying the club forward.

Ardent Fergie loyalists will point to the fact that United won the league in his final season at the club.

But of those in the 2012-13 squad, only four are playing at Old Trafford this season.

United have struggled to replace Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick.

All of those players in their prime would walk into the current starting XI, and United failed to plan for life without them.

Similarly, shortly after Arsenal's 2004 campaign, key players flew the nest with a distinct lack of younger options coming through to replace them.

Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp; Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, Ashley Cole; Sol Campbell, and Gilberto Silva were among those to depart.

Of the younger players in those squads (discounting Rooney), only Cesc Fabregas, David de Gea, Ashley Young, and Jesse Lingard could be considered successes (with special mention to injury-plagued Danny Welbeck).

Acquisition

Replacing top players is never easy - particularly when the likes of Henry, Scholes et al. are largely irreplaceable.

Arsenal's business was hampered by tight purse-strings, and by their better players moving on.

A lack of ambition from the club has held them back, with van Persie, Fabregas etc all knowing the grass was greener elsewhere.

They've had some moderate success with a number of their signings, with perhaps Aaron Ramsey being the best of those who've stuck around long enough.

But the expensive flops - of the Shkodran Mustafi, Gabriel Paulista, Gervinho ilk - stand out like sore thumbs.

United's flops have been equally as bad, but significantly more expensive over a shorter time frame.

The fact they've spent over £900 million since their last title six years ago screams of poor recruitment.

Fred, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay are among the worst, while the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan trade has become a stain on both clubs track records.

Management

In fairness to Arsene Wenger, his hands were largely tied much of the time by the lack of funds available to spend.

But there's no getting away from the fact that a number of his signings flopped, while his blind loyalty to others was questionable.

The Arsenal sides of the post-Invincibles era did not come with the same in-your-face attitude.

The lack of character was evident, and even Wenger himself seemed to have gone soft.

No doubt he will perhaps still wonder 'what if' he had managed to keep Jack Wilshere fit enough to get him on the pitch more often.

However, his failure to land a dynamic midfield enforcer or dominant centre-back pairing was a continually frustrating feature of his sides.

Whilst he always led them to the top four, and won domestic trophies, Arsenal never looked like challenging for the major honors, and his time at the club grew stale.

United by contrast chopped and changed with several appointments, none of which really suited the club's ethos.

David Moyes was out of his depth, Louis van Gaal felt like a square peg in a round hole, while Jose Mourinho was the wrong man at the wrong time.

Although none were helped by the United boards lack of direction, plan and frivolous spending that saw them throw more money at the problem in a desperate attempt to fix it.

Recovery

It's a long way back.

Both now look on the right track, with managers who are starting to put their stamp on their respective clubs.

Unai Emery and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have both invested well in youth, with the likes of Matteo Guendouzi, Kieran Tierney, William Saliba, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James all showing potential for the future.

In addition, they've added top-class players who can provide a solid backbone to success, with Harry Maguire and Nicolas Pepe the picks of the bunch.

But immediate success will be hard to come by.

Securing Champions League football has to remain a priority in order to attract the best players.

It took Liverpool 18 months under Jurgen Klopp - with Emery now six months off that, having been in his post for a season already, while Solskjaer will have been there for that long by the end of the campaign.

Continuity holds the key to success, but with pressure already mounting on both managers, it remains to be seen whether they will be afforded the time to turn fortunes around.

Solskjaer seems to have the backing of the United board, after they tapped into his roots to the club, while Emery's Arsenal reached the Europa League final and have shown flashes of the force they can be.

It's down to Monday's clash to see just how far they've come.

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