Originally published for Can They Score? on February 23 2013.
For the majority of its existance, the Premier League title race has followed in the principles of The Thunderdome of Mad Max fame: “two clubs enter’ one team leaves… victorious.”
Genuine three-way title fights appear to have become extinct in the Premier League era (hence our focus), with each season framed around a duopoly of contenders. Of all the gladiators who have entered the league’s gruelling grand arena – Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City – it is Manchester United who have remained the most persistent and dominant force throughout the past 11 years.
Riding high and heading into March 12 points clear, United are in excellent shape to go on and clinch a 13thPremiership title. However, the club’s detractors have denounced their position as false, claiming that the current United team and the league itself is bereft of quality. This season is said to be a low-point in the domestic game that flatters a side lacking in skill and substance – a drought lacking in good players, teams or contests.
In truth something has been lacking in English football’s top-flight over the past five years: a full-blooded, competitive rivalry. While many great teams have come through, won and lost throughout the Premier League years, the division’s best showdowns have featured something else – another ingredient beyond the league table – to set them apart from the rest.
Roberto Mancini and Manchester City are yet to provide the sort of opposition required to make the grade. Last season’s title win wasn’t enough. Regardless of the pain inflicted, and the bitter, long-standing animosity between the two clubs, United remain as the establishment. City’s challenge must be deeper and more prolonged to qualify. English football is demanding a new cold war between two opposing ideologies whose very existence seems to threaten the survival of the other.
In the heady days of Arsene Wenger’s peak, Arsenal versus Manchester United felt more like a clash of dynasties fighting over the rights to history than two clubs sparring for a championship. With his revolutionary methods, Wenger’s new-look Arsenal reeked of progress and sophistication – a challenge that seemed to offend United’s historical sense of glamour into rabid action. Add in Keane, Viera, along with a scattering of iconic, high-stakes games, and United’s modern-day rivalry with Arsenal became loaded with the potency required for greatness.
Competition creates a different kind of rivalry, coming as it does from an animalistic sense of nervous self-preservation and fearful, pre-emptive aggression against a threat to your identity, confidence and ambition.
For many, Liverpool will always be United’s greatest adversaries – a conflict first created through contest and later super-charged by it in the 2008-09 season. Not only were Liverpool attempting to block a hat trick of league titles for United, but suddenly the club whom Sir Alex Ferguson had vowed to knock from their perch had turned up to reinforce their record directly. It is competition not history that continues to encourage revisionist rants about that season across a number of Liverpool fan forums.
Chelsea, the other most recent arrival on the title chase scene, are partly to blame for the slightly deflated nature of Manchester City’s bid for domestic domination. There’s a sense that we’ve seen it all before, and having witnessed the supposedly insurmountable empire of oil riches built by Roman Abramovich fall in its attempts at total supremacy, perhaps there’s a certain complacency and lack of respect for what City have offered so far. Rather than replacing Manchester United as the club to beat year-in year-out, Chelsea have become the largest fish in the pool of potential contenders – an under-realm Sheikh Mansour’s pet project may be destined for judging by their second season hiccups.
There is potential over at the Etihad however, with money being poured into a state-of-the-art campus designed to compete with the best youth academies in the world. Self-sufficiency and standard-raising, as displayed by Arsenal’s glory days, are the key elements of a real, substantial competitive rivalry – the sort of war where triumph offers the winner far more than the annual spoils and awards. Money alone feels oddly transient, as if the assets and success it buys are slightly superficial and cosmetic. Even with its historical context and geography, United-City will remain lukewarm compared to previous challenges until the prospect of a fully-fledged usurpation is a likely possibility.