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Manchester United v Arsenal felt and looked like a mid-table game | Jonathan Wilson

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Everywhere you turned, there were the memories. In the tunnel, there was Roy Keane telling Patrick Vieira he’d see him out there. By the touchline there was Gary Neville kicking José Antonio Reyes. Just outside the penalty area, there was Martin Keown jostling Ruud van Nistelrooy. Remember? Remember how every man knew when we reached out to claim the throne? Remember when we were kings?

Those pre-Abramovich days when this was the biggest game in English football seem a long time ago now, two decades gone with atrocious haste. Manchester United and Arsenal aren’t even the best sides in their respective cities any more and on nights like Monday it was impossible not to wonder how long it will take them to get back to where they were, whether they ever will get back.

There are two great lies in football. The first, the short-term one, is transition. It’s an excuse made easier by the impatience of so much of football’s culture. Any manager can brush off a defeat or a run of poor form by saying his side is in transition. When the sack comes they can claim they just needed more time. Sometimes it is true. Among the most vivid of all the memories that haunt Old Trafford is the reaction to the 2-1 defeat against Crystal Palace in December 1989. The bedsheet bemoaning “three years of excuses” may be the most famous manifestation of the discontent but the fans en masse were in uproar.

Six months later, United won the FA Cup and 23 years of success under Alex Ferguson had begun.

It’s easy now to wonder what might have happened had the board not held its nerve, had Mark Robins not scored that winner at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. If memories of that season and an instance when the transition was demonstrably in the right direction incline fans to caution now it is understandable. But often transition is just another word for stagnation.

That season 30 years ago feels particularly relevant now. This is the fewest points United have had after seven games of a league season since then. Such judgments are subjective, but this feels the weakest squad United have had since then, certainly relative to the rest of the league. It’s not necessarily straightforward to tell in the moment but back then there was a clear plan as Ferguson refashioned and professionalised the squad. Can anybody, looking at this squad, at the recent transfers in and out, honestly say they can see a clear policy?

A wide shot of Old Trafford during Monday’s match.



A wide shot of Old Trafford during Monday’s match. Photograph: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Does anybody have any faith, even if fortunes are splurged, that things will be better in two transfer widows? In four? In six?

Football’s other great lie is that success is cyclical, as though if you’re big enough things will come good if you wait long enough.

Squads have cycles, it’s true, and whoever is in charge of long-term development, be that a manager or a sporting director, must manage the age profile of a team while fighting a constant war with entropy – but those are the details. There is also a macro picture and it’s that that must be of serious concern for United.

Quick guide

Manchester United’s worst start in 30 years

Manchester United have made their worst start to a Premier League season after Monday night’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford.

Pressure points: The pressure has built on Ole Gunnar Solskjær as United have taken only nine points from their first seven games – just enough for them to squeak in to the top half of the table. United have won only once since their opening 4-0 victory over Chelsea, with Marcus Rashford’s penalty earning them a 1-0 home win against Leicester. 

Fall from grace: It is just two years since José Mourinho oversaw United’s joint-best start to a Premier League season. United claimed 19 points from their first seven games in 2017-18, equalling the starts made by Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides in 1999-2000 and 2011-12. United finished runners-up under Mourinho that season, but a whopping 19 points adrift of champions Manchester City. 

Ole at the wheel: The figures make bleak reading for Solskjær when comparing the Norwegian’s record with his predecessors. Mourinho – who would be sacked in December – made a poor start last season, but his 10-point haul from the first seven games was still one more than Solskjær has managed 12 months on. David Moyes also took 10 points from his first seven games in the 2013-14 season, while Louis van Gaal won 11 and 16 points in the respective 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns. 

30-year low: The last time United made such a poor start to a campaign was under Ferguson in the days of the old First Division. United picked up only seven points from their first seven games of the 1989-90 season, a run that brought successive defeats to Derby, Norwich and Everton and ended with a famous 5-1 thrashing by Manchester City at Maine Road. United ended up 13th that season, but lifted the FA Cup as Ferguson won his first trophy in England. PA Media


Photograph: John Peters/Manchester United
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A lack of planning, a lack of nous, are beginning to affect the financial picture. United’s latest financial results show a record wage bill of £332m, 43% up on three years ago and 22% higher than the club with the next highest wages in the Premier League, Liverpool. Commercial revenue, meanwhile, has essentially stagnated over the past four years – although it remains 18.5% higher than that of City, who are second in that particular chart. Ed Woodward may be a genius at finding sponsors and partners in every market, and there’s no reason for panic just yet, but slowly underperformance in the league is beginning to have an impact.

After nine points from seven games this season, after 19 goals in their last 21 games, after an awkwardly imbalanced side lurched to another less-than-impressive result, the temptation is to start looking down rather than up. The gulf to City seems unbridgeable, at least in the short term, at least while Pep Guardiola remains in situ – and given how adroitly City’s present owners have planned everything so far, they’re as well placed to manage that transition as any side could be. The reports that Giovanni van Bronckhorst is already being groomed as his successor is indicative of a long-term perspective alien to the vast majority of clubs.

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The question now is rather how low United could go. The financial structure of modern football means there’s not going to be another relegation, as in 1974, and given how tightly bunched the league is, 10th isn’t necessarily as bad as it may appear. But United could easily finish behind Leicester City this season, and perhaps West Ham and Everton as well. There are no guarantees even of Europa League football.

And that was what was most striking about Monday. It looked like a mid-table game and it felt like a mid-table game. Apart from everybody talking about how great it used to be, United v Arsenal felt like a nonevent.

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