Arsenal’s matches against Manchester United used to be the barometer of our season; highly competitive contests that largely decided major honours. Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford showed us just how uncompetitive Arsenal have become. We had a reasonable spell of possession after half-time, close to United’s penalty area, but we never got close to hurting them. Just as you were starting to think ahead and imagine the ball arriving at the feet of one of our forwards and maybe a goal being imminent, as we have seen so much in the past, you returned to reality and remembered that things have changed. This is not the Arsenal of pre-2005, when we won trophies galore under Arsene Wenger, this is a very different Arsenal.
We used to be United’s equals, slugging out crucial contests like two gladiators. We used to fight toe to toe, often winning plaudits for our intelligent ways of carving victory. Now we only look capable of taking a beating. Arsenal used to be the clever kid in the playground, standing up for itself and giving as good as it got, admired by many. Now, we are the playground nerd, getting beaten up and accepting it. Where United used to respect us and expect a contest, now they pat us on the back as we hand over victory like pocket-money.
Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson used to be the bitterest of rivals. I loved how Wenger got the better of Ferguson over and again, by having the wit and the intelligence to out-do any sledging from Fergie, with a dry cutting remark. If looks could have killed, there were many a murderous hand-shake on the touchline over the years and during tetchy interviews. Now, Wenger takes the blows from Ferguson’s sides and then shakes hands on it, accepting the punishment meted out, like a playground dork from the bully, acknowledging the new status quo and accepting our place in it.
Ferguson used to snipe at Wenger, becoming personal at times, bemoaning that Wenger was aloof, keeping himself apart from other managers and not wanting to have a glass of wine after a match. Now, Ferguson appears to have formed a faux affection for Wenger, calling him Arsene. It is uncomfortable in its awkwardness and for the knowledge that this development can only have come about because Ferguson no longer sees Wenger as a direct rival.
The emasculation that broke the camel’s back of United’s respect for Arsenal was the two defeats of the 2009 Champions League semi finals. We were outplayed in the 1st leg at Old Trafford and got away with a 1-0 defeat. This created the illusion that we had seen out a tough contest for only a narrow defeat and that we could reach our second final in three years in the 2nd leg. Sadly, United totally undermined us with a 3-1 win in London, including humiliating us with two early goals. I think Ferguson realised that night that there was little to fear from Arsenal.
That contest is only one of many from recent seasons but, in United-Arsenal terms, I think that remodelled Arsenal in Ferguson’s eyes, from contenders to spectators. We watch on while others challenge. We no longer have what it takes to challenge at the very top. We are not challenging United for the Champions League or the title, we are challenging at the level below instead, to qualify for the Champions League, by finishing in the top four.
We no longer compete with United for top honours, we are just obliged to play them twice in the league each season. Whereas once those matches were crucial and gave Arsenal the chance to catch United and ultimately overtake them, now these matches are frankly a pain for Arsenal. When you are trying to win enough matches to qualify for the cash cow of next season’s Champions League, forever chasing that on-going financial horizon, the last thing you really need is two defeats against United during the campaign. So we go to Old Trafford, take the beating, cracking jokes like the dweeb in the playground while we’re soaking up the blows and hoping that our ribs don’t get too bruised, as all the other kids stand round and watch, because we can no longer fight it off and we have to reserve our energy for the fights that we can still win.
Arsenal’s contests against United are no longer gladiatorial bouts for honour, glory and prestige, but a haunting of what used to be and a beating to be taken, because we cannot compete with them right now. We live in hope that Arsene Wenger can reconstruct a philosophy and a capability to sustain challenges, or that the handover to a new man can happen in such a way that Arsenal can become competitive once again to challenge for the top honours. In the meantime, we compete for a lower rung of achievement, to at least qualify for the Champions League, for the crucial money that it brings in, even if we have barely a genuine hope to win it.
“From Geek to Nerd: Arsenal No Longer Compete with United” was written by Simon Rose. Simon has been my North Bank neighbour since the 90’s, is a good friend, and I’m sure you’ll agree a great writer. Many thanks to Simon for contributing to That Sums It All Up, in what is hopefully the first of a few guest articles from both himself and others – watch this space for further news!!