During a week involving European football, the Premier League’s Monday night fixture normally features two teams not competing in Europe or, at very least, teams who have qualified for the Europa League and are therefore not in action until Thursday night.
So it was perhaps a measure of how far Man United and Arsenal have fallen that this week’s televised Monday Night Football was a fixture at Old Trafford between the two teams.
Whereas, for many years, the fixture would have been seen as potentially decisive in the title race, the current standard of both teams is such that if either were to even finish in the top four, it would be considered success. And should both clubs go on to finish among the qualifying places for next season’s Champions League, it would be met with huge surprise among fans of any club.
But even during the title battles contested by the teams led by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the gap between them and the challengers was never as big as the current gulf between the top two and the rest of the top half.
Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea each had at least a couple of seasons in which they appeared to be closing in on the benchmark set by the Man United and Arsenal teams of 1997-2004, with only Liverpool (2002) and Chelsea (2004) managing to split up a duo who took 12 of the 14 top two places during that period.
Despite the league table currently being topped by Liverpool, it’s still a case that Pep Guardiola’s Man City are the side to beat and the team who’ve set the modern benchmark that others are aiming for.
Liverpool have risen admirably to the challenge, and may yet be rewarded with a league title if the team can come close to achieving the consistency of last season.
But no other club appear close to being able to compete, either over a short period or a full season, and the task for clubs like Man United, Arsenal and also Chelsea, is less of whether they can bridge the gap to the top two, and more to do with how they’ll handle the challenge being set by Leicester – and potentially other teams with top ten ambitions.
Given that these teams, recently referred to as being among a ‘big six’, are so far from being able to take it for granted that they’ll eventually deliver the results necessary to earning European qualification, it’s fair to argue that the idea of a ‘big six’ is quickly fading as a thing of the past.
If assuming that Man City and Liverpool will again be a class above the rest, the number of teams who could realistically compete for the remaining two positions in the top four has never been greater.
All of which could mean that it may not be the last time we see Man United versus Arsenal on a Monday night.