The Rise And Fall Of Man United Vs Arsenal by Dan Smith
When we last went to Old Trafford, frustrations among both sets of fan bases kind of boiled over.
Well maybe it’s a good job zero supporters are in attendance this Sunday, because as the saying goes, things change yet stay the same.
That 1-1 draw last season seemed to represent how far both clubs had fallen. It wasn’t just that both sides sensed the other was there for the taking and that neither took advantage of the others lack of confidence. It was the confirmation that a fixture that was once the biggest game in England had resorted to such a lack of quality.
If there was one thing Manchester United vs Arsenal used to have, it was quality. The times it didn’t, it was only because the stakes were so huge that it brought out an intensity.
Competition meant that while always respecting each other, the dislike amongst the opposing players were very real.
We were the first in the Premiership era to not just threaten a prolong period of success, but be spoken about as more entertaining to watch, the team who played the game the right way. That never sat well in the red half of Manchester.
Two clubs who had once dominated the League, now battling at best to possibly squeeze into the top 4.
Younger gooners would have heard the stories of Keane vs Vieira but it’s hard to underestimate how special this was. It’s like anything – you don’t appreciate something till it’s gone.
We of course were last Champions in 2004.
Since then rivalries over the crown have been Chelsea/United, United/City, City/Chelsea, City/Liverpool.
Yet none have had that feel of the Arsenal v Man United clashes, when both were in their prime.
So how did standards go so high, to suddenly players swapping shirts at half time
Apart from one-year Blackburn, Manchester United had won every Premiership by the time Arsene Wenger arrived in North London in 1996.
There was an unwritten rule in English Football. This was Sir Alex Ferguson’s playground, this was his ball. He wasn’t used to anyone suggesting anything different.
So while Mr Wenge ‘s dietary and training methods were celebrated inside Highbury, his attempt at other ideas to revolutionize the British game was mocked by Sir Alex.
Our manager had questioned United being able to reschedule fixtures to suit their needs.
With disdain, Sir Alex said, ‘ I think he’s been managing in Japan, now he wants to tell everyone in England how to organize their football. Till he’s got a team top of the League and in Europe, he should keep his mouth shut.
It was the first sign that the establishment was being ruffled by the new kid on the block, yet Fergie might very well have looked down on Wenger at that time, certainly unaware of what he was capable of.
While we were contenders in 96/97, no more so then a Liverpool or Newcastle. In his first full season of course, Mr Wenger would win the Double. Like anything though, it was how he did it which stood out
In February of 1998 we were 13 points behind the Champions but with games in hand. It was enough of a gap for some bookmakers to already pay out. The significance of an Overmars goal at Old Trafford was that Sir Alex had tried every one of his mind games in the run in, knowing that we were one slip up away from our destiny not being in our own hands.
These were the head games that had messed up the likes of Kevin Keegan, but not Mr Wenger, he would just make a wry smile.
Sir Alex had to accept someone else getting the plaudits. Not just for winning, but knowledge of training, diet and the transfer market abroad which made him unrivalled
The key difference between the two clubs (and still is) was the financial restrictions. United had the money to respond by buying Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam.
Even though it would be a heart-breaking one, I always viewed their treble winning season as the apex of this rivalry. Both truly were at the height of their powers; both had few weak areas, and both knew it. Both believed they were the best in the land.
Of course no one remembers those that come second and I get that. Yet in the year that United won the Treble, it easily could have been our Double. We were a 90th minute Bergkamp penalty away from going to the Cup Final and not them. The way that semi-final was celebrated, you sensed they knew the momentum was bigger than just the FA Cup.
In the last week of the campaign our title fate was still in our own hands until a late loss at Leeds. It showed that the margin between success and failure could be so small.
Another name key to the most successful period in our history was David Dein. Like any business man of course his priority was to make money, but he cared about the Gunners that he wanted us to be competitive.
He realised we were in danger of seeing the gap grow between us and United, who comfortably added two more championships to their treble.
While we remained the best of the rest, it was very much a distance second place. Dein realised we couldn’t keep competing, dwarfed by the fees and wages being paid at the Theatre of the Dreams.
That’s why plans were put in motion to build a new stadium round the corner from our current home, with the long-term vision being that once debt was paid off, we would have the revenue to compete with Europe’s finest.
The summer of 2001 was the most productive we had been in years with Dein asking Mr Wenger what he needed to catch United, the two working closely together to make deals such as Sol Campbell happen.
Such was the animosity between the two clubs, it seemed symbolic that we ended up taking United’s own title away from them at their own stadium. It was from this point onwards they would change their tactics towards us. In an ultimate sign of respect whenever we faced them, Sir Alex would put a Phil Neville or Darren Fletcher in midfield to try and bully us.
This intensified the verbal confrontation with the two managers, with Wenger feeling United had resorted to physicality and were no longer trying to match us at skill.
One of the biggest regrets under Mr Wenger has to be 2002/2003 where it felt like we lost the title rather than United won it. We were 12 points clear in February and history shows this would have meant three consecutive titles. Of all the plaudits we ever had, we were just as entertaining this season as any other. Maybe things were too easy for us and we got complacent.
Our coach was making broad boasts. Not just us retaining the title but going a whole season unbeaten in the League. It was seen as arrogant, especially when a young 16-year-old called Wayne Rooney condemned us to defeat a week later. Mr Wenger was only kind of wrong, he just got the year wrong
Sometimes you need to fail to succeed.
It’s been often said by the players involved since, that the pain of blowing the title the season before, inspired them to have the greatest campaign in our history.
It’s fitting, given the chapters between the two, that Man United would have such a potent part of our unbeaten run.
In many ways they bookended the Invincibles. They were the closest to stopping the Invincibles from ever happening, Van Nistelroy’s stoppage time pen hitting the bar and promoting Keown’s famous celebration. Yet they were the side that also ended our streak at 49 ironically thanks to a pen.
This is where it was evident of the spitefulness between the two sets of players. Arsenal were disgusted the lengths United went to, the late Reyes being targeted and Rooney clearly diving.
Because of the subsequent brawl in the tunnel, this match has been christened ‘The Battle Of Old Trafford’ with years later Fabregas confirming it was he who threw the pizza that hit Mr Ferguson in the face.
It was almost like both parties agreed to leave the animosity in the Old Trafford tunnel and resume it back at Highbury, with Keane famously squaring up to Vieira who he felt was picking on Neville for picking on Reyes.
Viera would get the last laugh by winning the FA Cup against United with his last kick as a Gunner.
If you said Arsenal wouldn’t win any more silverware till another 9 years no one would have believed you, especially when we got to our first and only Champions league final a year later.
Yet if we are talking about the fall of the significance of this fixture then we have to talk about the events elsewhere and Arsenal and Man United ‘s response to it.
Overnight it was like Chelsea had won the lottery when billionaire Roman Abramovich chose to buy them. The Blues hadn’t won the title in 50 years but suddenly could outbid anyone in the world for wages and fees.
With the ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho winning consecutive titles, Chelsea were predicted to dominate for the next decade, something they would have done had their manager not imploded.
The developments at Stamford Bridge couldn’t have come at a worse time for Arsenal. As Chelsea had hit the Jack pot, we were in transition. We had set up a business model where we had agreed to pay back loan repayments, which would be covered by qualifying for the Champions League and having to raise funds through transfers yearly.
This wasn’t spelt out to fans directly at the time. It would be a PR disaster if they publicly admitted they were not title challengers.
The hole in Arsenals business plan was simple, they put too much faith in UEFA’s financial fair play policy.
Here we were thinking of how to move to a bigger stadium while remaining self-financed, while a Russian Billionaire just made Chelsea rich overnight. Our original plan of a few years in transition while we paid off debt was meant to be worth it. Once we came out the other side, we be able to compete with anyone. When that plan was put into motion, we didn’t envisage the Chelsea takeover, then the Man City scenarios. We were naive or arrogant or both.
Since our last title, Manchester United were able to carry on competing. They would wrestle titles away from City and Chelsea and have even won the Champions League again.
There fans have never been happy with the Glazers, yet for different reasons compared to the problems we have with our American Owners. The Glazers had taken out a loan to buy United, debt put on the club itself.
Stan Kroenke on the other hand has always been happy for Arsenal to be a self-sustained model. Pre-Pandemic, Arsenal, business-wise, are one of the best run clubs in the world, there’s just never been any ambition to be anything else.
It was mocked that Arsenal only cared about finishing in the top 4 as that meant a profit. This was underlined when we sold our best player to Man United.
Not surprisingly, once he convinced his old foe to sell him Van Persie on the phone, the two quickly grew a friendship. In other words we were no longer deemed a threat.
The rise in the TV deal means it now doesn’t matter where we finish, Mr Kroenke makes a lot of money just by Arsenal being Arsenal.
The Glazers on the other hand were happy to throw around money, although it’s not always clear if there is a strategy.
Both Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger were critical of countries being allowed to buy football clubs, and were resistant of the crazy money being banded around. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson realised there was zero-point fighting change, else you get left behind.
Arsenal Wenger refused to adapt, whether that was out of his stubbornness or restrictions is debatable to this day.
Perhaps predictably both clubs have struggled in the era since their greatest managers departed.
United fans now celebrate qualifying for the Champions League after mocking us for doing the same.
Years of being fed up with ‘only finishing 4th’ is now something we would bite your hand off for.
Both are relying on former players who understand the ethos of the badge, and will only accept those who meet the standards they were taught. The irony is that Arsenal seem to have more of a plan behind the scenes yet United are more likely to spend 100 million on a Sancho as an example.
This Sunday, there will be Aubameyang laughing even if we lose, players high fiveing their friends on the opposition, two sides happy for a point, etc. These are just attitudes that Keane and Viera wouldn’t stand for.
Both clubs are a long way from those days. Let’s hope Arteta is taking the first steps towards returning to those levels.
The real winners of those glory days were not Sir Alex or Mr Wenger.
It wasn’t Keane or Vieira.
Or even United or Arsenal.
The winners were us fans who got to enjoy these classic memories that will live forever.
I hope those days return very quickly…