Generally, the best football teams have a life cycle of about three to five years. That is probably the limit of time during which a team will perform at the peak of its powers, especially if there is not too much change in and around the dressing room. Soon after, however, there will need to be significant refreshment and turnover in the playing squad, and maybe even amongst the coaching staff, if the team are to remain at the top of the pile. Look at some of the best teams to have competed in the English Premier League itself, for example – Manchester United 1992-1995, Arsenal 1996-1999, Manchester United 1998-2001, Chelsea 2004-06, Chelsea 2008-2012, Manchester United 2006-2010, and so on. Just looking at the teams from the start of the Premier League up until 2010, we can see that the best sides were usually ‘the best’ for four to five seasons at most – making it easier for the betting sites to get their odds correct – and that was with investment and transfer market moves being made during that period. Of course, one of the teams mentioned in that list is the Manchester United side between 2006 and 2010. This was arguably not one ‘era’, so to speak, but the development of that side began in 2006, or probably even earlier, and it had peaked and was on the downside by 2010 or so.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance of the English game had been well and truly challenged by the sudden arrival of Chelsea into the Premier League’s elite. Roman Abramovich’s ambition and money had fuelled a spending spree, the likes of which had not yet been seen in the English game, as he snapped up the most wanted manager across Europe, Jose Mourinho, along with some exceptional talents in Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, who would go on to define Chelsea over the next 5-10 years. Manchester United, on the other hand, had been treading water since 2003, with Arsenal putting their name in football history with the ‘Invincibles’ campaign in the 2003-04 season, and Chelsea then storming to two consecutive Premier League titles along with a League Cup victory as well. Ferguson had begun to ease out some of the old guard, most memorably demonstrated by his de facto banishment of Roy Keane, the stalwart and captain of the Treble-winning side, and had started to bring in some new blood into the club to lay the bedrock for his next successful side. These included an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Anderson, Nani and Edwin van der Sar. Ferguson was rebuilding the entire spine of the side, and was moulding a team which, between 2006 and 2010, could legitimately claim to be one of the best in the world, according to 18Bet Review in their report.
By the time the 2008-09 season came around, those claims of being the best were not unfounded. United had won two titles in a row in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, and had also begun to up their game in Europe, losing in the semi-finals of the Champions League to eventual winners AC Milan in the 2006-07 campaign, before finally scratching their European itch and beating Chelsea on penalties on a memorable May night in Moscow to claim their third European Cup, and Ferguson’s second, in the 2007-08 season. During this time, it was clear that Chelsea were now United’s biggest rivals domestically, at least when it came to competing for titles, and had also started making moves of their own in Europe. The rivalry between United and Chelsea was intense and fierce, which served to replace another such relationship which had now simmered down to quite an extent – United’s relationship with Arsenal.
It can be easy to understate the impact that Arsene Wenger’s arrival had on the English game, not just at Arsenal. He won a Double in his first full season on these shores, and completely revolutionised the sport, bringing the ideas of nutrition and fitness to a game which was sorely crying out for it. Again, looking back, it may not be apparent just how big an impact that had on English football – it was a seismic event, akin to Leicester City’s odds-defying Premier League title win a few years ago. Ferguson, who would always look to take down any new threats as soon as possible, while dismissive of the Frenchman initially, quickly realised that this man was the real deal, and the result was a white-hot rivalry which burned bright for several seasons. Arsenal and United were frequently challenging for trophies against each other – it is often forgotten that in the build-up to that FA Cup semi-final in the 1998-99 season, Arsenal were chasing a Double of their own, to go with United’s Treble hopes. This is just one example; over the period from 1997 to 2004, Arsenal and United were each other’s closest challengers. This was brought out in the matches between these two sides, with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira embodying the two teams’ mutual hate for each other. However, Arsenal had embarked on a very ambitious plan to build and move into a brand-new stadium, which required financing. The debts taken out to build the Emirates Stadium meant that Wenger could not compete in the transfer market anymore, and thus needed to find bargains and young players to polish and turn into diamonds, rather than buying ready-made players for the top level. Chelsea’s arrival into the elite arguably hurt Arsenal as much as the stadium debt did at that time, as their spending power created a new dynamic in the market with regard to transfer fees, with Arsenal no longer able to offer similar terms.
All of this meant that when the two sides were drawn to play each other in the semi-finals of the Champions League in the 2009-09 season, that they were two sides on completely different trajectories. Arsenal were the ones treading water now, managing to stay in the top four but not being able to mount a significant title challenge, while United were the reigning English, European and world champions, having won the Club World Cup a few months prior to this tie, and well on their way to seeing off Liverpool’s challenge and retaining the Premier League title as well. English football was perhaps the most dominant league in Europe at this point, as evidenced by the fact that the other semi-final pit Chelsea against Barcelona, thus guaranteeing that an English team would make it to the final for the fifth consecutive season. One of those finals, the 2006 edition, had seen Arsenal lose to Barcelona in heartbreaking fashion, after having taken the lead, no less, despite playing with ten men due to goalkeeper Jens Lehmann’s sending-off in the 18th minute. Wenger would sadly never lift a European Cup, despite his status as one of the greatest managers in English football history, and this tie would also cruelly rob him of another shot at the Champions League.
The first leg, played at Old Trafford, saw United beat Arsenal 1-0 through a John O’Shea goal. The Arsenal lineup on that day included the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Theo Walcott, showing that it was not devoid of top-class talent. However, the second leg would bring about a show of counter-attacking football which would leave Arsenal shell-shocked, and United on their way to a second consecutive Champions League final appearance.
The bookmakers had United as favourites in the betting odds, but even they would not have expected such an eviscerating display of football. United took the lead inside eight minutes, with South Korean stalwart Park Ji-Sung scoring after a fatal error by young Arsenal left-back Kieran Gibbs, and were 2-0 up on the night, and 3-0 up on aggregate with two away goals, three minutes later, after a stunning Ronaldo free-kick from more than 40 yards out. That goal summed up the path of both sides, with the ball whistling into the net like an Exocet missile, catching Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal goal completely unawares, and further burnishing the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo’s status as the best player in the world. United managed the game from there on, not allowing Arsenal a sniff back into the game, and put the cherry on the cake with one of the most devastating counter-attacking goals ever.
United’s third goal on the night came from an Arsenal corner. Watch the video – United clear their lines, and immediately set off on the counter, with Ronaldo playing a backheel into Park Ji-Sung to start the move. Park then advances with the ball, with a rampaging Rooney on his left and Ronaldo rapidly making up ground on his right, and the Arsenal defence scattered all over the place, trying to keep up. Park’s pass to Rooney is perfectly weighted, with the Englishman charging clear of Alex Song, but what is sensational is Ronaldo’s pace, as he steps on the gas and accelerates into the box. Rooney plays another perfect pass into the box for the onrushing Ronaldo to knock into the roof of the net with his first touch, and that was the moment you could actively feel that the air had been let out of the Emirates Stadium. United had gone from defending a corner to scoring at the other end in the space of about eight or nine seconds, and completely deflated Arsenal in the process.
Arsenal arguably never recovered from this result, with their form gradually declining over the next few seasons. United, on the other hand, would stay at the top of the file for a couple more years, despite being beaten by Barcelona in the ensuing final. The Red Devils managed to win their 19th English title in the 2010-11 season, also reaching the final of the Champions League that season, before being beaten again by Barcelona. Despite losing Ronaldo to Real Madrid, with that 2009 final being his last game for the club, Ferguson kept United competitive for some time, before Manchester City too arrived at the top of the table to shake things up. However, Arsenal are still in that rut, reduced to competing for a place in the top four, and now not even managing that, having last played in the Champions League in the 2016-17 season. This tie marked the moment where Arsenal’s faint hopes of competing at the top of the pile, both domestically and in Europe, were summarily crushed by United, and the club are still struggling to find their way back, more than ten years since that match.