Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.
It was strange to see Arsenal v Manchester United billed as a bit of a non-entity this weekend. Both teams sat outside the top four, their hopes of Champions League qualification very much uncertain. Fitting then, that the pre-match atmosphere in the tunnel at the Emirates reflected the nature of the game. But does this signal the end of the era of great rivalries?
The relaxed mood exemplified by David de Gea and Petr Cech’s embrace on Sunday left Match of the Day pundit Phil Neville apoplectic. “This is a nonsense to me. A total nonsense”, the ex-United defender said, before comparing Nacho Monreal’s demeanour to like being at a Christening. Indeed, the temperament of the game that followed was more a splash of civility than the deluge of aggression this fixture was once known for. While it is perfectly normal for fellow professionals who consider themselves friends to want to greet each other, what sets sport aside is the ‘in the moment’ factor. The staring down. The clearing out of every other thought to focus on one thing: Victory.
Sunday’s meeting didn’t have anything like that or anything resembling the great head-to-heads of the last 20 years. In reality, it’s largely indicative of Arsenal and Manchester United as a clash no longer being seen as a giant one. Through various factors (ironically with a long-serving manager in the centre of things), neither team is what they once were. This weekend, former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers were relegated to League One with crippling debts. Though this is an extreme example, the ‘giants’ of the past have very much regressed to the point where they sport, rather sheepishly, the generic ‘big club’ label.
So, are we seeing, or even, have we already seen the decline of the great Premier League rivalries? Even when the Manchester Derby had its fairly recent renewed intrigue, fuelled largely by City’s new billions, there was a sense that even United were on the wane in Sir Alex Ferguson’s twilight years, while most United fans would agree that City had ‘won the lottery’ and therefore their bi-annual meetings no longer had the soul of pre-2008 games.
But what has caused the shift in perceptions? Well, between 2011 and 2014 the gap between the top five teams in those seasons dramatically decreased, and in the last couple of seasons we’ve seen Spurs and Leicester battle their way into the coveted top four. This season there is undoubtedly a top six. There are now a lot of ‘big games’ but perhaps not so many of the huge games, the games that define eras in the top tier of English football. Ask me what match of the past 25 years sticks in the mind, it would be Liverpool’s 4-3 defeat of Newcastle in 1996 that left Kevin Keegan looking like he’d had a particularly heavy night. This is perhaps a natural reaction as the Premier League storybook gets ever longer and we look upon the ‘classics’ with growing fondness.
There may be a more human element to the perceived decline in the great rivalries. We know the game is awash with money, the result of the globalisation of the English game. Last season, almost all of the 20 clubs spent over half of their turnover on wages. Players have never been better paid. So on some level, it could be fair to say that players are more functional when it comes to their jobs. Turn up, play the game, recover, train. Repeat. Rivalries therefore don’t have the same meaning as they once did. As we saw on Sunday too, many of the top players are international stars and so have forged relationships outside of the weekly scrap for points.
Ultimately though, we need to ask ourselves if this is indeed what we want to see. Television audiences are in decline, so on the face of it there wouldn’t appear to be an appetite for games where pleasantries are exchanged and the competitive make-up of the top of the table has all but moved away from the fierce Real Madrid-Barcelona dominance model seen in Spain. But if football, and sport as a whole is anything like the way we consume our other forms of entertainment in TV, cinema and theatre, then we surely want to experience it all. Yes, we’ll get the ‘good’ some of the time, where players don’t try and hack each other down. But on the same day Nacho Monreal was all smiles in North London, Nelson Vivas, part of the Arsenal team of that ‘giant’ era, was showing all the passion that Keane and Vieira will always be remembered for. So let’s hope that we also keep getting a healthy dose of the bad and the ugly when it comes to the pinnacle of our game.
Authored by: Reece Lawrence