The football history often speaks of rivalries which are built on geographical tensions or upon the political differences. But the fiercest of them are always the ones kindled by the immense quality of players on the either side. The clashes between Arsenal and Manchester United were of that kind when two of the finest clubs in England fought to settle old scores and tried to establish their supremacy over the other.
Though there were few matches of note in the 80’s, the enmity between Arsenal and Manchester United reached its prime in the 90’s when they shared between them, 11 of the first 12 Premier League titles from 1992 to 2004, and as many as eight FA cups. Those were the years when the games between them left a mark on your memories.
The earliest of such clashes would be the epic mid-match brawl of October 1990. Nigel Winterburn made a bad tackle on Denis Irwin which precipitated a brawl between both sets of players. All but one of the twenty-two players on the field were involved in the fight that resulted in several fines and suspensions.
Arsenal won the match 1-0 but Manchester United were already the established leaders of the English football. They had won the Premier League right from its inception in 1992-93, claiming four of the first five titles. The only time they surrendered the title was before the shocking run of Blackburn Rovers in 1995, but their period as crowned champions was fleeting as United reclaimed the title in the next season. Simply put, the Premier League lacked a side that could challenge Alex Ferguson’s United, and that’s when a certain Frenchman walked into the English football.
The changes that Arsene Wenger brought to the Arsenal side was quick and radical. Players were banned from drinking beer or eating Mars bars, instead were encouraged to eat vegetables and drink lots of water. He was transforming the team into a technically competent but physically strong side, and the results were immediate as Arsenal went toe-to-toe with United in the very next season. There were also indications of the future rivalry when Peter Schmeichel clashed with Ian Wright over a bad challenge, and when Wenger and Ferguson got into a verbal brawl over United’s demand to extend the league programme to fit their busy schedule.
However, the enmity truly caught fire in the 1997-98 season when Arsenal clinched the title from the Red Devils. The Manchester-based side went into the second half of the season with 12-points clear at the top of the table, but Arsenal stiched a ten-game winning streak which saw them rubbing shoulders with the reigning champions towards the end of the campaign. In the title-deciding match at Old Trafford, Arsenal emerged victorious with a Marc Overmars strike in the second half that gave the London side a 1-0 win over the rivals. Arsenal went onto claim the double that season.
Alex Ferguson reacted to Arsenal’s maiden Barclays Premier League title triumph by substantially altering the squad, signing Jesper Blomqvist, Dutch centre-back Jaap Stam and Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke. And It worked wonders, as United went onto become the first English club to win the Barclays Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League treble. But their league title was a nail-biting finish as the Arsenal fell short of just one point, and if not for their loss against Leeds in their penultimate match of the season, the results would have been very different.
The 1998/99 season also produced one of the greatest game in the FA cup history. The game kicked off with a stunning David Beckham curler that ended Arsenal’s seven-hour run without conceding a goal. Dennis Bergkamp then equalised midway through the second half before losing a penalty to a brilliant save by Peter Schmeichel. The game was going 1-1 into the dying minutes when Patrick Vieira surrendered possession to the legs of Ryan Giggs who produced a glorious run and finish that went into the history as one of the greatest ever cup goals.
The first two years of the 20th century belonged to the Manchester United as they claimed the next two league titles, making Alex Ferguson the first manager to win three successive English League titles with the same club. The 2000/01 season also saw Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke tearing Arsenal apart in a 6-1 rout at the Old Trafford. Arsenal responded with a 1-0 win at the Emirates, but it wasn’t enough to stop United from winning another title. The match, though, produced one of the better verbal spats of all-time when Ferguson came out insisting that his side played the better football, to which Wenger responded with the infamous quip, “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.”
The slugging match between the two continued into following seasons with both taking turns to trade blows with each other. But the rivalry touched new heights with the arrival of the ‘Invincibles’ who won the 2003/04 Premiership without losing a single game. The closest they came to losing was in the 0-0 stalemate at Old Trafford—a match dubbed as “The Battle of Old Trafford.” Martin Keown conceded a penalty deep into stoppage time, but the always reliable Ruud van Nistelrooy crashed his spot kick against the crossbar which brought out the entire Arsenal defence crowding and shoving the Dutchman.
Arsenal continued the unbeaten run through the season and into the next one before surrendering it before the United in the “The Battle of the Buffet.” Ironically, it was van Nistelrooy who converted the penalty that ended the Gunner’s 49-match unbeaten streak. The drama didn’t end there, though, but was followed by an on and off-pitch fracas that culminated with a pizza on the face of Alex Ferguson. The tensions from the ‘pizzagate’ incident emanated into the infamous League Cup quarter-final which ended in another large-scale confrontation triggered by a late Robin van Persie tackle on Kieran Richardson.
But with the rise of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea in the English football, the rivalry between them lost some its appeal as they were no longer the only ones in the title contention. Besides, United was building a new generation and Arsenal was experimenting their new policy of intermixing youth and experience.
There were, though, some signs of rekindling the rivalry when Rooney and Ashley Young combined in 2011 to hand the Arsenal their heaviest league defeat in 84 years, a shocking 8-2 loss at the Old Trafford. But the game didn’t end with players throwing pizza at each other or the managers locking the horns or anything dramatic. With both teams falling behind in quality, it no longer had enough personalities or the intensity to grow beyond a simple football match.
However, when a rivalry is forged in history, it can never be fully doused. It still remains there smouldering, and a slightest of a fire could re-ignite it to its former glory.