By 90Min
September 30, 2019

"No, because it was the biggest game in the Premier League since the beginning of the Premier League," said Darren Fletcher, when informed by Mark Chapman that there is no feasible way you could spin Monday's clash between Manchester United and Arsenal as being the fixture it was back in his day. 

"It's sad to see. We've had to watch Liverpool and Man City become what Arsenal and United once were."

That's a polite, yet frank, assessment of a fixture that Fletcher watched go off a cliff throughout his glittering playing career. 

For context, his first appearance against the Gunners came at the makeshift rivalry's peak. Then a budding midfielder, he played 70 minutes against Arsene Wenger's 2003/04 side at a sold-out Highbury, a late Louis Saha equaliser cancelling out Thierry Henry's opener to ensure a share of the points. 

United had won the Premier League by five points a season earlier, five ahead of Arsenal who were nine points ahead of the rest of the league. The Gunners came roaring back, however, with the point earned against United on that March afternoon just one of 90 they'd pick up on the way to that famous undefeated league title.

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Fast forward to Fletcher's last game as a United player against Arsenal, an 89th minute cameo in a 2-1 victory at the Emirates in 2015; a Kieran Gibbs own goal, Wayne Rooney and Olivier Giroud on the scoresheet. By now, the Gunners had long since left the historic surroundings of Highbury behind, and hadn't won the Premier League since that invincible campaign. 

United weren't faring so badly; they'd marked Ferguson's 2013 send-off with a title win; but the clear signs of a downward spiral were beginning to show. Having already appointed and sacked David Moyes, they were now midway through the ill-fated tenure of Louis van Gaal.

Both sides would qualify for the Champions League, but there was something telling about the fact that Chelsea and Manchester City made up the top two; the respective former rivals of Wenger and Ferguson who couldn't lay a glove on them ten years prior. 

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And then we come to today, when Fletcher, a retired pro, prepares to watch the two sides go head to head, and it's not even abundantly clear what each can hope to achieve in the season ahead. Top four, realistically, is the ceiling, but with the competition heating up and Leicester City flying high, you get the feeling either would grumble and accept fifth or sixth place.

Each are so far from the title picture that even glancing at Liverpool or City sets off their vertigo. 

The once great rivalry that saw Patrick Vieira take on Roy Keane, each wearing the captain's armbands, will on Monday see Ashley Young captain Manchester United and Granit Xhaka lead out the Gunners. Keane will be in the Sky Sports studio for Monday Night Football. 

You're left wondering 'how on earth did we get here'? 

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You can point to the dominance of Liverpool and Manchester City and the vast chasm they've put between themselves and the rest of the league, but in truth both clubs have the resources and potential to compete at the top; they just haven't had the savvy to execute it. 

United are the most potent example of that. Since Ferguson stepped down, leaving the club to venture into a new era with an infrastructure a good ten years back from the other major clubs in the country (they still, incidentally, haven't appointed that sporting director) they have been floundering. 

Where Liverpool appointed Jurgen Klopp, believed in him and stuck with him until he got it right, United opted for a knee-jerk approach, and appointed Moyes, Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho with a view to delivering short-term success. None of the three were able to acceptably deliver it, and each faced the axe.

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Even the decision to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while he stands a decent chance of getting it right yet, was a questionable one. 

Handing a three-year deal to an unproven manager just two months into an interim spell, off the back of a handful of positive results with the season a long way from finished? Their form since suggests that was a needless, erratic punt, with no real actionable plan for the long-term, that stands at risk of back-firing. 

It's a different story at Arsenal, but the theme remains the same; with poor decision-making from the boardroom spilling out and affecting the team on the park over a sustained period of time. 


Their problems stem more from a focus on profit at the expense of ambition in the transfer market over the last decade. Over the last ten seasons excluding 19/20, they've spent £628m on acquiring players and made £374m back - putting their net spend at a total of £254m. 

For context, Manchester City's net spend sits at £1.2bn in that time, while United have spent £600m and Chelsea £490m. Of the teams to have finished either first or second in the Premier League since 2009/10, only Tottenham and Leicester have spent less than Arsenal.

Arsenal would argue that Spurs and Liverpool have each shown that you don't have to spend mega-bucks to succeed, but the way each club is run diverges wildly, and unless you have an exceptional set-up, then the reality is that clearly-defined, fearless investment in players is the way forward. Arsenal's balance sheets over the last ten years have displayed an ability to do that; yet it's taken them until the departure of Wenger to come to the realisation that it is necessary. 

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Whether you're pointing the finger at United, Arsenal or distributing the blame equally, Monday's clash is a long way from the historic fixture Darren Fletcher remembers. It's recognisable only in name to what it was in the late 90s and the early 2000s. 

And, rather depressingly, whether that's going to change any time soon will continue to depend on the decisions made at board level, rather than on the park.  

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