It has been rather too easy to forget just how important the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United was to English football over the millenium. Significantly, really, is the only word for it. From 1997 to 2004, nobody broke the Sir Alex Ferguson/Arsene Wenger-led duopoly that dominated the Premier League title race. Nobody, in real terms, even came close.
“If you look at our history prior to Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea, there was no consistent threat to our dominance outside of Arsenal,” written by Ferguson in his recent autobiography. Alongside the Portuguese, Wenger is the only other manager afforded a chapter to himself in the book. But still, it was more than just two great teams under two great managers playing two distinctive but nevertheless the brilliant styles of football. It mattered.
We cared because, so clearly, they did. ARSENAL v MAN UTD, Previous views from all of Goal’s top contents exclusive: WILSHERE TRAVELS UNITED ARE TITLE CHALLENGERS – ARTETA SAGNA: ARSENAL DON’T FEAR MAN UTD ARSENAL AREN’T FAVOURITES – SZCZESNY From only six months into Wenger’s tenure in north London, when Ferguson gave a description of the Frenchman as a “novice” to, well, just over a fortnight ago and the release of the former United boss’s book, in which he made criticisms, amongst other things, the Arsenal man’s ability to produce his own players, it was a rivalry that brought the best and, more enthrallingly, the worst out of both clubs. The soap opera-style, up-and-at-’em nadir came at Old Trafford 10 years ago, in a game that Sky’s Martin Tyler described at the time as
“for 75 minutes a football match and then it became a feud”. Or, for the headline writers ever since: The Battle of Old Trafford. It will forever be weaved into the English football tapestry. Martin Keown, arms outstretched and neck veins on the precipice of popping, jumping at and onto Ruud van Nistelrooy after he missed a penalty that was meant to be the last kick of a draw(0-0). And then it all came crashing down. Gary Neville pushed Keown, Lauren pushed Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo pushed Lauren and repeat ad infinitum. It was a cartoon dust cloud short of a full-on brawl and, save for the FA disciplinary panel, who fined Arsenal and number of players from both sides upwards of £275,000, we loved it. Again, we cared. Eight months later and Arsenal were The Invincibles.
The undefeated Premier League champions. Wenger’s third and, at time of writing, last league title. In the following season of 2004-05, United prevented the Gunners from making it 50 games unbeaten in the league, with Ferguson’s suit on the line, which was wrecked by a slice of Hawaiian pizza flung by a teenage Cesc Fabregas during another post-match brawl in an image so brilliant that you are almost glad that it never made its way onto the TV cameras. The game at Highbury that season was also won by United after Roy Keane – the 5ft 10in Roy Keane – challenged Patrick Vieira (6ft 4in) to pick on someone of his own size in the tunnel ahead of the match, after the Frenchman allegedly made Gary Neville furious. But by then had come the shift – or Mourinho, as he is also known. His Chelsea side embarrassed the warring pair from north London and Manchester and had their first title in 50 years wrapped up by April. And as the Keanes, Keowns and Vieiras quietly drifted away, the venom soon followed.
The old enemies have not really ever been the same since then. Wenger’s side, consigned to the relative tundra of fourth and occasionally third place since 2005, became by and large become an afterthought for a United side preoccupied by the new-monied Chelsea and Manchester City. For the five years, Arsenal have finished on average 15 points behind the club whom they dominated alongside and battled against for almost a decade, . It all became a bit … nice. Wenger or his then-assistant, Pat Rice, returned to Ferguson’s office after matches between the two for wine and a chat and the Scot spoke of his pity for his opposite number after United consistently scored against the Gunners to in an 8-2 win at Old Trafford in 2011. Even United’s signing of Robin van Persie – surely the most significant transfer between two English clubs in over a decade- was met peacefully by an Arsenal outfit resigned to the fact that they are indeed lagging behind. But they are back. Unquestionably so. A win at Old Trafford for Wenger’s side today would see them move 11 points clear of their hosts after as many games.
It would not only be unprecedented, it is almost unthinkable. Yet,with a win away to Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday and the five-point gap at the top of the table upon which Arsenal taking the lead, coupled with the fact that David Moyes has failed to beat a team currently placed higher than 13th in the league, give the game an unusual air of role reversal. United are in danger of being left behind. And so once more to that word, ‘significant’, and to a fixture that had for too long felt anything but. Manchester United v Arsenal is now again on top rating. The Battle of Old Trafford is back.