Where did all the good hate go?
Tomorrow Arsenal play Manchester United for the last time this season.
Tomorrow Arsène Wenger plays Manchester United as Arsenal manager for the last time ever. That's kind of a big deal.
Tomorrow Old Trafford shall be the stage of the final encounter between Wenger and the club that has provided him the greatest rivalry of his career, and indeed the greatest rivalry of the Premier League era.
For ten years, between 1996 and 2006, Arsenal vs Manchester United was pure box office. These were the two best teams in the country, under the two greatest Premier League managers at that time, going to toe to toe for everything, every year.
That's a situation we simply have not seen since. I'm not saying there are no true rivalries in the Premier League now. The North London, Merseyside, Manchester and Tyne-Wear derbies all are, or have been, genuine Premier League rivalries. But they're rivalries in a purely geographical sense. The Manchester derby aside, none of the other aforementioned grudge matches have been duked out with silverware on the line. They've certainly never been contested by the two finest teams in the country at the time.
Granted, the Manchester derby has had some glints of silver in it. I'm referring of course to the 'Ageurooooo' game in 2012, and the remarkable comeback of Mourinho's men earlier this season to deny the Citizen's a league title victory at Old Trafford. Those two instances have been the exception rather than the rule in this rivalry however. In the decade or so since a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family made Man City a footballing heavyweight, United have been generally on the decline. They've not been consistently fighting tooth and nail at the pinnacle of the game.
In 2012/13, Sir Alex Ferguson's final season, Man United won the Premier League at a canter. Since then, the closest they've come to reclaiming their crown is this season, when they were basically ruled out of the race (like everyone else) in September. So, they've not come very close at all. The Manchester derby then cannot yet be considered one of the great rivalries of the Premier League era. Certainly not in the vein of Arsenal - United.
It has the potential to be though. There is no love lost between Mourinho and Guardiola, and should this season's 1st and 2nd finish interchangeably 1st and 2nd over the course of the next few years then a great rivalry will have been born. Whilst this isn't an unimaginable sequence of future events, it doesn't feel very likely. Klopp's Liverpool will be eyeing a genuine title charge in the next year or two; Chelsea will rebuild and remodel themselves into a competitive outfit again before long. Beyond that, it's hard to envisage both Mourinho and Guardiola remaining in Manchester long enough to see this come to pass.
After all, the managers are a vital ingredient in any rivalry. They are what it's all built upon. The reason we'll probably never see a rivalry of the likes of 96'-06' Arsenal - Man United again, is that we'll almost never have managers like Wenger and Ferguson again. I say that in the sense of their longevity and to the extent that their clubs were built in their image.
Modern Premier League managers aren't around long enough, and do not wield enough power within their clubs, to ever allow such a set of circumstances to arise again. That is the necessary nature of the modern game. But it's a shame. Those Arsenal - United clashes were titanic and utterly brilliant. The footballing quality, mixed with the animosity, the passion, and what was at stake resulted in some the finest ever Premier League title chases and moments.
Tomorrow the curtain shall finally fully close on the greatest of all Premier League rivalries. Fergie is gone, Arsenal and Manchester United are no longer the two runaway best teams in the country, and soon, Arsène Wenger will be gone too. In truth though, the fire in the belly of this head-to-head has been merely burning embers for some years now. New powers have risen, as old ones have faded. Yet, a new truly great rivalry has not yet emerged, and we should not forget how great that Arsenal - Manchester United one was.
That rivalry helped make the Premier League what it is now: the most watched football league around the world. So much of what we love about this league was born from that hate, but man, that hate was good.