It can be hard to pin point when a rivalry truly starts, particularly when dealing with two mainstays of English top flight football. There are always hotly contested matches and trophy wins to point to between most teams but for Arsenal and Manchester United, there feels a definitive starting point. And that would be the big mouth of a Scotsman:
"Wenger doesn't know anything about English football. He's at a big club – well, Arsenal used to be big. He should keep his mouth shut, firmly shut... He's a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football." ~ Sir Alex Ferguson, 1997
That season, SAF would appear to be smart as he won the league with his dominant Red Devils. The next, Arsene Wenger would lead Arsenal to a League Title and FA Cup double. Not so much the novice, then was he. Of course, Man Utd would then win the treble the next. From then on, it was a clash of egos, of cultures and of cities. The two teams would be each other’s measuring stick of success, winning ever league title until Russian-Rich Chelsea burst onto the scene in 2004-2005.
While it dwindled, the prolonged two horse race made for some bitter, bitter confrontations. Here are some of the better ones.
Welbeck Strikes Back
Probably the lone notable non-Ferguson moment (outside a certain defector), Arsenal met Man Utd at Old Trafford for an FA Cup Quarterfinal matchup. It looked like a last opportunity for both teams to salvage something from a season that saw Chelsea romp away with the League. Arsenal were trying to defend their FA Cup of 2014 while Moyes 2.0 trying to justify his major signings vs lackluster play. Nacho Monreal scored the opener; Wayne Of-Course-He-Did Rooney equalized. Touch and go for a while until Man Utd castoff Man Utd popped up to burn his old team.
Oh, Dat Guy. Louis Van Gaal later had to swallow further humiliation as Angel Di Maria got sent off for grabbing the ref. Man Utd were lucky not to lose by more than 2-1 and, while Arsenal went on to repeat as FA Cup champions, Man Utd had to settle for a 4th Place Trophy.
2-1 at Old Trafford
It was a season of Transition. Arsenal finally moved from the fabled grounds of Highbury for the Emirates and had said goodbye to a rash of legendary players, including Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and that money-grubbing bastard. It also was a struggle of a season where inconsistency landed Arsenal in 4th at the end on the season on goal differential. Yet if there was a bright moment, this victory, in January of 2007, over the eventual Champions was it. Wayne Who-Else Rooney gave Man Utd the lead which looked pretty safe. But in a true late show, Arsenal kicked back with goals from Robin Van Persie and Theirry Henry to take all three points.
2005 FA Cup
There have been few finals between the teams so, in May of 2005, there was an added edge to the FA Cup final. The title had slid Chelsea’s way leaving the domestic trophy the loan trophy for either Wenger or Ferguson. It wasn’t pretty for Arsenal. Man Utd drove the large part of play while Arsenal played stout defense and fouled a lot, a rather reversal of narrative for a side usually said to play pretty football.
Still, it worked as Arsenal dragged the game to extra time and then penalties, neither side finding the back of the net. Arsenal hit five out of five. Man Utd four, with Paul Scholes saved by Man Jens Lehman. Arsenal celebrated over their rivals but then said farewell to midfield powerhouse Patrick Vieira. They’d struggle to ever replace him. Good way to go out.
Here at The Short Fuse, we have a bit of an argument on what Henry’s best goal is. I still think it is his 2002 solo effort against Tottenham, which embodies Henry’s skill and arrogance as he bosses an entire team on his own then celebrates in front of angry fans. However, a very very very good case can be made for this:
It is quite literally top class. October of 2000, it’d be the only goal of the game. Likely didn’t need another. (Bonus: here’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain attempting it.)
The best 0-0 ever played
The Invincibles will be remembered always as being dominant, powerful and beautiful. But there were a few games where their undefeated season was truly in the balance and might never have been. Early in the campaign, well before thoughts of being undefeated were even in our minds, Arsenal traveled to Old Trafford to face the English champions. It is often pointed to as the quintessential moment in the rivalry, now referred to as the Battle of Old Trafford.
8 yellows and a red to Vieira after Ruud van Nistelrooy jumped all over him and he foolishly lashed out with his foot. Diego Forlan would then go down rather easily as Martin Keown bundled into him, which resulted in a some shoving as Arsenal players argued. Van Nistelrooy stepped up and clattered the bar. Game over.
Except it wasn’t as Keown and others gave Ruud all the grief and the players had a mild dust up at the end. Bad blood abounded and while not a good game footballing wise, it was such a controversial and wonderful result for Arsenal, made only sweeter by the knowledge that one of Man Utds best strikers in history failed to prevent the Invincibles when gifted the chance.
It’s been a slice.
Of course, there would be the fall out. After going undefeated a whole season, Arsenal kept it up, bringing their total to 49 games domestically. It was a phenomenal run where it felt like they’d never lose again. What fools we were. Game 50, Old Trafford. The signs where there. Wayne Not-You-Again Rooney was “felled” by Campbell setting up a penalty Ruud would not miss and then scored in the 90th to defeat Arsenal 2-0. It just had to be them, it just had to be him. It really couldn’t end another way in hindsight.
Of course, the game earned another nickname: Battle of the Buffet. Post game, the teams, who clearly didn’t like each other at this point, had another dust up but this time in the tunnel. Perhaps trying to calm the situation, the illustrious Sir Alex Ferguson, great man of football, ended up having a slice of pizza hit him in the face. (For me, it was an education of what players ate after games.) It was later said to be Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza but in the end it doesn’t matter. The unbeaten run was over.
And SAF had pizza on his purple face.
Winning at Old Trafford
Few feelings are better than winning the League Title. One of those feeling is winning in front of bitter rivals. Arsenal has accomplished this against Tottenham (TWICE) and Liverpool but Wenger’s true feather in his cap was the 2002 League Title at Old Trafford. Man Utd and Liverpool were chasing but Arsenal put it out of reach on the back of a Sylvain Wiltord goal, which was then marked by the most dangerous goal celebration ever - allowing Kanu to leap over top of you. Seriously, he could have died:
Without Henry, Bergkamp or Adams, Arsenal cruised to victory, adding to their FA Cup a mere four days before. It was a good week.
On Saturday, the rivalry continues at Old Trafford. While it has cooled in years without SAF and both sides experiencing some ups and downs, there’s a new reason to suspect it might get a good flare up: despite being pretty bad this season, Jose Mourinho is now the boss and where he goes, controversy and frustration for Arsene Wenger follows.
But I wonder if he’ll know enough to play Wayne Just-Go-To-The-MLS-Already Rooney.