Manchester United’s rivalry with Arsenal provided the great theatre of the Premier League’s formative years and beyond – but those days seemed light years away on Monday at a soggy and dismal Old Trafford.
Long gone is the era when Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger jousted on touchlines and for trophies, when the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira squared up even before leaving the tunnel, when the pizzas flew and silverware was the main currency at both clubs.
When Manchester United’s in-house channel MUTV previewed this game it was a procession of glorious football, an array of red cards in a showreel of football brilliance.
And then there was Monday’s 1-1 draw as ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ drowned in a downpour of rain and mediocrity, rarely enlivened by anything that could be called quality.
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In the context of a meaningful Premier League title challenge, this was the sporting equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb. The only influence, indeed relevance, Manchester United and Arsenal will have on the title race is how they fare when they face leaders Liverpool (Arsenal have already been well beaten at Anfield) and reigning champions Manchester City.
On this evidence the answer will be: Not very well.
The highlights were Scott McTominay’s first-half goal, struck high past Bernd Leno, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equaliser correctly awarded by VAR after technology proved he had been comprehensively played onside by a loitering Harry Maguire.
There were suggestions United’s players had been distracted by the linesman’s raised flag as Aubameyang completed the job but even this meant they ignored one of the first rules drummed into children when they start out – play to the whistle.
While no-one expected a repeat of previous classics, this was sobering proof of just how far behind Liverpool and Manchester City these two clubs are.
If the old battles were worthy of big-screen epics, this was the sort of stuff you would stick on in the middle-of-the-night graveyard slot.
This was 11th hosting eighth in the Premier League before kick-off and it is a sign of how far these giants have fallen that for much of a joyless, charmless game that sounded just about right.
The first half was particularly desperate. It was almost half-an-hour before anyone had a shot at goal in a period only enlivened by some reckless tackling, perhaps the only similarity with the previous history of this fixture.
Manchester United and Arsenal are now experiencing the dreaded feeling other clubs used to have about them. How do we stop them? And how do we catch them?
The modern-day equivalents are Manchester City and Liverpool. Arsenal are in fourth, which they will regard as reasonably satisfactory for now, while United lie in 10th after a result which means they have made their worst start after seven games for 30 years.
The Solskjaer bounce has flatlined spectacularly. They have won 49 points from their 28 Premier League games under the Norwegian, two fewer than in their final 28 under sacked Jose Mourinho.
Manchester United and Arsenal’s combined points tally is the same as Liverpool’s after their seven straight wins. All very stark but also a very realistic reflection of where they are.
Solskjaer still has much to prove to show he is up to the job of managing Manchester United as they sit uneasily between Crystal Palace and Burnley in the league table, while Unai Emery has yet to show he is truly transforming Arsenal.
United can point to injuries to full-backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, which robbed them of two dimensions in defence and attack, as well as the presence of six academy players in their starting line-up, although that number includes Paul Pogba, who they bought back from Juventus for £89m.
The problem is a glaring lack of quality, inspiration and threat.
If Solskjaer stays as Manchester United manager for a serious length of time, it is currently almost impossible to decipher how he will put them back alongside Manchester City and Liverpool.
Manchester United are currently playing a different game and have inferior players, while Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp will not stand still waiting for them to catch up.
Arsenal, meanwhile, may ultimately reflect they wasted a perfect opportunity to end a winless league run at Old Trafford that now stretches back 13 games.
If Arsenal had shown the courage of their convictions they could have beaten this average United side.
It was not a great start to Granit Xhaka’s tenure as Arsenal captain, nor a night when he did justice to the position held by greats such as Frank McLintock, Tony Adams and Vieira.
Xhaka not only committed a foul on Jesse Lingard in the build-up to McTominay’s opener, he then appeared to take evasive action as the ball flew towards Leno’s top corner.
If he did not take evasive action, he certainly contrived to avoid the ball on its way into the net and Arsenal’s fans took the dimmer view. In his defence, McTominay’s shot did take the slightest glance off Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
Maybe we should not have been too surprised. Manchester United and Arsenal are in various stages of transition and reduced circumstances. This was what they are.
The best they can aim for, their true goal, is a place in the top four but there are big doubts about whether either will even reach that target.
And the best of this fixture lies firmly in the past. It will be a long road back to anything like those glories.