Growing up being a Liverpool fan, no match was better or more important than that between the Reds and the arch nemesis, Manchester United, the ultimate contest of the season for both sets of fans (mainly for who would have bragging rights in the school playground the following Monday). But, equally as significant and exciting, one which more often than not decided where trophies would end up by the season’s end, was Manchester United versus Arsenal, a match whose significance grew as the Premier League era rolled on.
This is a contest steeped in history that was every bit as exhilarating as any major game in the world firstly, for the football and secondly for the personalities that dominated such occasions. Everyone remembers Roy Keane’s legendary bouts with Patrick Vieira, mind games between managers Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, THAT Thierry Henry goal in 2001 and probably one of the most shameful incidents on any pitch in 2003, when Ruud van Nistelrooy looked helpless as he was surrounded by a pack of hungry Arsenal players. The fixture became an institution, but its glamour has somewhat worn off in recent years.
Many reasons can be pinpointed for this. United’s post-Ferguson decline has seen them lose a certain status as a team to be feared and the never-say-die character instilled by Ferguson, whilst also lacking the personalities in the dressing room that made the fixture what it was in the late 1990s and early to late noughties. Meanwhile Arsenal’s yearly chase for the bare minimum of the Champions League and constant selling of their stars, particularly Robin van Persie to United, has taken much away from the fixture in that both teams are no longer (this season anyway) the biggest teams in the country, in terms of recent league finishes anyway.
The quality that poured from this game time and time again has abruptly diminished, along with the stature of both clubs. It is also fairly obvious that no one from these teams hate each other, in the same way they had before. You couldn’t imagine Keane or Vieira having a drink together after a game, like you can imagine opposing players doing nowadays. You would have thought that losing 8-2 at Old Trafford (the last truly entertaining contest between the two…for a neutral anyway) would have built some real resentment from Arsenal’s stars towards their long time rivals. But in the last four matches between the Gunners and the Red Devils, including Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final clash, only nine goals have been scored, one less than the absolute massacre back in 2011.
Monday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford represented the best this fixture has had to offer over the past few seasons. The first half was very open, made even more so by Nacho Monreal’s 25th minute strike and Wayne Rooney’s equaliser four minutes later. Both teams were focused on the win, despite clear defensive errors from both teams which enabled the game’s goals, particularly from United’s standpoint.
The first 45 minutes anyway, represented a partial return to the competitive nature of the fixture’s history but, the second 45 brought a dose of reality. After United old boy Danny Welbeck’s winner, via a criminal back-pass from non-right back Antonio Valencia, United lost their way, playing the same kind of disjointed football that has underpinned many of their performances this season – hopeless long balls to Marouane Fellani, with no real creativity to make things happen, especially after Angel Di Maria’s sending off. Arsenal were not challenged in any way and were prevented from adding to their tally by United’s player of the season, goalkeeper David de Gea.
All in all, a good game but nowhere near what it has been in the past. Much may need to be done to both teams before this fixture can become legendary again, whatever that may be. Until then, they will only be painfully average.