Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Freddie Ljungberg painful reminders of how great Man United and Arsenal used to be

Matt Jones - Editor 19:05 30/11/2019
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  • Solskjaer and Ljungberg playing for United and Arsenal.

    Oh, how the mighty have fallen. If ever there was an indicator of just how far Manchester United and Arsenal have tumbled, take a look at their managers; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Freddie Ljungberg.

    Poignant, if painful, reminders of how great their clubs used to be. Both foot soldiers in revered armies assembled by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

    But now in situ out of hope more than expectation as these bastions of greatness cling desperately to the vestige that they still matter.

    They do, of course. To their fans, to the football community as a whole. But both United and Arsenal are crumbling empires, shadows of their former, glorious selves.

    When once they strode around the Premier League, conquering all before them – the two behemoths have a combined 16 titles from 27 Premier League seasons – while Ferguson and Wenger strutted along the touchline like bolshie, proud peacocks, now they stumble and struggle.

    For the longest time the United/Arsenal, Fergie/Wenger, Roy Keane/Patrick Vieira rivalry defined the division.

    Who can forget Pizzagate/the Battle of the Buffet (so infamous it has its own, extensive, Wikipedia page) that proceeded the breaking of Arsenal’s Invincibles’ 49-game unbeaten record run after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s controversial winning penalty. The explosive tunnel incident at Highbury when Keane unleashed an expletive-laden rant at Vieira before the game had even kicked off.

    Or the ugly scenes that marred a frenetic 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in September 2003, a result that also hinged on a controversial Van Nistelrooy penalty.

    Solskjaer is working to mold United in to his own image.

    Solskjaer is working to mold United in to his own image.

    That one was dubbed the Battle of Old Trafford. Five Arsenal players and two from United were charged by the FA while the Gunners were handed a £175,000 fine – at the time the largest ever meted out to a club.

    Amidst all the adrenaline-pumping blood and thunder moments it must be remembered that there was also some pretty good football played too, by some pretty good footballers.

    Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Peter Schmeichel, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo all formed part of devilishly decent Red Devils outfits. Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Cesc Fabregas, Ashley Cole and Ljungberg were firing the Gunners’ ambitions back then.

    Today, it is Manchester City v Liverpool that is now the Premier League’s premier clash, even if it still pales into insignificance in terms of the heat generated by meetings between the Gunners and Red Devils between 1996-2005.

    In Ferguson and Wenger’s stead we now have Solskjaer and – temporarily at least following Unai Emery’s sacking on Friday – his former assistant, Ljungberg.

    Two players who featured significantly in those games are trying to reignite giants that have fallen into mediocrity and decline.

    While United fans used to rebuke their Liverpool counterparts for championing their history during dark times, it is now they who cling to past glories.

    It cannot be ignored that their 20 English top-flight titles is two more than any other team. The team from across Manchester have a mere six, but it is the rivals from the blue half that shine brightest now.

    United have fallen behind in nearly every aspect – silverware, structure, players sprinkled with stardust and stadia (Old Trafford is a creaking wreck that has gone unloved for far too long).

    Down in the capital, meanwhile, a similar shift is occurring. Although Arsenal’s decline seems more prolonged and fans don’t have as much success as United to comfort themselves with, they have long been able to revel in the perennial misery of their north London rivals.

    The disparity between the success of Arsenal and Tottenham is so gargantuan that their dominance is marked by its own occasion in the calendar.

    St Totteringham’s Day (again Wikipedia possesses all the information required on this) – coined by Arsenal fans in 2002 – refers to the traditional time of the season when the Gunners had accrued sufficient points to be mathematically assured of finishing ahead of Tottenham in the league table.

    Childish? Sure, but it was only in 2016/17 that this 22-year hoodoo was broken. The day was even more feverishly celebrated the previous year when not only did Tottenham’s title pursuit plummet as Leicester City claimed a scarcely believable triumph, but a dreadful run of two draws and two defeats in their final four games saw Arsenal pip them to second place on the final day by a point.

    Mourinho's arrival at Tottenham could spell further misery for Arsenal.

    Mourinho’s arrival at Tottenham could spell further misery for Arsenal.

    Gunners fans are grimacing not gallant these days though. Spurs have finished above them in each of the last three seasons and the men from Emirates Stadium are in turmoil following Emery’s departure and a start to the season that hinted at little clarity of style or substance.

    They have had their own troubles four miles down the road in N17 of course. Mauricio Pochettino – largely responsible for lifting Spurs above Arsenal in recent years – was sacked days before his rival from N5.

    Jose Mourinho – Mr Marmite – has replaced him. And love or loathe him, you can’t help but admire the Portuguese’s past success, and feel that maybe, just maybe, he has one more splurge of success in him.

    Unlike during his regrettable stint in charge of United, Mourinho seemingly has everything he requires at his disposal. He is in charge of a club with a quality squad, one that doesn’t require massive regeneration and boasts one of the most fearsome strikes in world football, Harry Kane.

    They have a brand new stadium and plush facilities, plus are in the Champions League. A competition Arsenal haven’t grace in three seasons, after a stretch of 19 consecutive campaigns.

    Both United and Arsenal have made their worst starts to a season in decades. And besides Liverpool and City, who should be nailed on to finish in the top two, the duo also have vibrant Chelsea and Leicester in form.

    Solskjaer and Ljungberg would desperately love to bring back the heady days of 15 years ago and dispel the doom and gloom.

    But for now the shadows of Ferguson and Wenger loom large.