It was only a little over a decade ago that this fixture - still one of the biggest in the English calendar - used to mean only one thing. The destination of the Premier League title. Two of the country's biggest clubs never failed to disappoint and it was a fierce, totemic and often toxic rivalry that captivated the world.
In much the same way as Liverpool and Manchester City are slugging it out now as a new rivalry blossoms, the United - Arsenal duopoly was the Premier League's pre-eminent raison d'etre for more than a decade.
Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira. The two captains who loved to hate each other. The snapping, snarling, kick-everything-that-moved, hard as nails Irishman versus the powerful, no holds barred, World Cup winning ball of fire and ice. Ruud Van Nistelrooy vs Martin Keown. The 22 man punch up and docked points. Peter Schmeichel vs Andy Cole. Flying pizzas, Ruud's redemption and Ryan Giggs goal in 1999. 6-1. 8-2. Robin van Persie. The moments trip off the tongue as easy as you like - each contributing to telling the tale of a rivalry for the ages. It was the 24-carat diamond, the jewel in the crown.
The sight of captains Keane or Vieira holding aloft the
Premier League trophy at the end of the season grew to become a tiresome
sight for fans of clubs other than Manchester United and Arsenal.
1997 and 2004 United and Arsenal were the only clubs to finish as
champions. They also collected five FA Cups between them during that
Two giants of the game locked in a bitter feud only mirrored by the two mighty men going to toe to toe in the dugout in Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Two of the best teams this country has even seen seemingly in an endless series of epics, each one more memorable than the last. The irresistible force vs the immovable object pushing each other to unbreakable levels.
What's the opposite of that paradox? Now its more like the chocolate fireguard vs the invisible man.
Whatever it is, I think we know what it looks like. Arsenal haven't won at Old Trafford since 2006, with their last title coming in the Gunners Invincible season two years hencewith. United have been a mess for almost a decade. The fixture that once meant more than any other has now come to merely resemble a glorified Europa League play-off. As the fortunes of the two clubs have slowly dwindled, so has the importance and emotion of the fixture.
There are new managers, new faces and new rivalries have come to the fore. Where once there was enmity and pure loathing, now there is a grudging respect. Now both managers have retired, and the clubs have faded into the background to try and recoup their past glories. The fact that Ferguson and Wenger became friends and remain so to this day tells you that this is a rivalry that has fallen by the wayside.