A history of Man United v Arsenal and how far we have fallen since the Wenger/Ferguson rivalry

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…

Dan Smith

Tags Ferguson Wenger

41 Comments

  1. Loose Cannon says:

    The rivalry was at its peak because we and them had men who would take the game seriously both players and managers. Sir Alex continued to be ruthless, Arsene got happy collecting his wages irrespective of the results. Sir Alex did fight CFC/City with his shrewdness and tactical genius, while Arsene scrambled around hunting to find excuses and petty stupid reasons to justify mediocrity. Arsene single handed demolished Arsenal and will take seasons to remove the laxity and mediocrity. Sadly Unai and Freddie paid the price while Mikel is bravely fighting his battles with uninterested lazy greedy players. Hope he does not the war.

    1. Lenohappy says:

      Loose Cannon 👍

    2. ThirdManJW says:

      Well said Loose Cannon, although you better watch your back! Some on here loath the truth, and nothing factually negative should ever be said about the messiah Wenger!

    3. Kenny says:

      “Arsene got happy collecting his wages irrespective of the results.” – What’s an insult to Arsene. Don’t fit to be an Arsenal’s fan. Everyone knows very well of the Emirates Stadium and limited budget for players except you, Lenohappy and ThirdmanJW. Please don’t be Arsenal fans.

      1. ThirdManJW says:

        Money has absolutely nothing to do with coaching defending Kenny! Our defence was one of the main reasons we regressed so much.

        Arteta has proved it, and so has Pep. Pep has spent something like half a billion on defenders, and they still look poor at the back. Kroenke wasn’t coaching our players. Gazidis wasn’t coaching our players.

        1. Dan says:

          What has Arteta proved ?

          1. ThirdManJW says:

            He has taken poor defenders, that had been in shocking form, and got them defending well. He’s taken the whole team, and got them defending properly as a unit. We haven’t seen this for well over a decade! Especially against the top teams.

          2. Dan says:

            As he ?
            In the prem
            He ‘s lost to Chelsea
            Twice to City
            To Liverpool
            And to Spurs

            In those games where he’s apparently got everyone defending well
            Leno mistake against Chelsea
            David Luiz shocking against City
            Kolasniac passes ball back to son for Spurs goal
            Spurs score from free header from set piece

    4. Dan says:

      Funny , I don’t remember finishing 8th under Mr Wenger?
      Are we the only club who changes managers and says it will take years to fix ?
      Let’s break this down
      We have barely any goal threat from midfield – it was Emery who chose not to give Ramsey a new contract , not Wenger
      We have zero creativity – it’s not Wenger who chose to leave out Paul
      72 million on Pepe – not Wenger
      Playing Kolasniac as central defender – not Wenger
      Going out of Europe because you demand a keeper play from the back when he’s not comfortable – not Wenger
      Replacing Koscielney with David Luiz – not Wenger
      Giving a contract to Cedric – not Wenger
      Finishing 45 points behind Liverpool – our worst position in 25 years – not Wenger

      1. Dan says:

        Leave out ozil lol

      2. Durand says:

        League is vastly more competitive than before. For years there were 4 clubs fighting for champions league spots. Now vast sums of money has changed the league; from owners to tv rights, etc….
        Let’s not make it like the level of competition then is equal to today’s level. I’m merely stating the obvious, so let’s avoid any comments about me hating Wenger.
        Let’s just keep things in proper context and not rewrite history to criticize Wenger or overly praise him.

        1. Dan says:

          It was a one horse race last season
          And two horse race last three seasons
          Man u finished 3rd with 66 points
          That’s not competitive

      3. ThirdManJW says:

        Lets easily dismantle your tosh Dan!

        We had three managers last season, so you can’t blame one individual for us finishing 8th.

        No we’re not the only club. Tons of clubs change managers, and it does takes years to fix in many cases. No better example than Klopp at Liverpool.

        Who’s fault was it that Ramsey got down to the last year of his deal in the first place, thus giving the player all the power? Not Emery. It was trademark Wenger and Ivan!

        Pepe not working out is not really a surprise. Emery didn’t want him, and he’s not Arteta’s player. Board error.

        Wenger almost always played players out of position. Monreal at CB in a back four was probably the most ridiculous thing I have seen, especially as we had CB’s available at the time.

        We got absolutely humiliated in Europe in Wengers last 7/8 years. Three 5-1 defeats in row to the same team!!! Shocking! Emery got us to our first European final in 13 years, in his first attempt!

        Luiz was a stupid signing I agree.

        Contract for Cedric was fine, we needed backup to Bellerin, but 4 years was too long.

        Finishing so far behind Liverpool, please refer back to my first point.

        But if we’re talking about terrible stats. 14 years straight not even being competitive in the league. 9 years straight winning anything. 7/8 years straight not being competitive in Europe. Those are shocking numbers, and all under one man…Wenger! Emery or Arteta could never match that in a million years! No manager could at a top club!

        1. ThirdManJW says:

          9 years not winning anything

        2. Dan says:

          Ramsey though said himself contract was agreed and it was Emery choice
          You agree pepe wasn’t down to Wenger ?
          You agree luiz wasn’t down to Wenger ?
          So mistakes have been made where you can’t just blame Wenger

          1. ThirdManJW says:

            Those are minor mistakes, in comparison to over a decade of incompetence!

          2. Dan says:

            8 out of those 10 years we finished top 4
            How does that mean he’s responsible for finishing 8th ?
            He didn’t buy Pepe, William Luiz , Guendozi, Torreria , Sokertise
            I dare say if he was here Ramsey and ozil would be playing

          3. Defund The Media says:

            Pepe and 72 mill is definitely no ‘minor mistake’

          4. ThirdManJW says:

            @Defund The Media

            It is compared to over 10 years of errors, as I said in my comment.

            @Dan

            Wenger, along with Gazidis left the club in an absolute mess, that is a fact! It’s ridiculous to think that mess could be cleared up straight away. It will take years. There are consequences to ones actions. Just because Wenger isn’t responsible right now for what’s happening at Arsenal, doesn’t mean he’s not the source of so many problems.

            E.g. The Ozil debacle is all Wenger and Gazidis.

          5. Defund The Media says:

            Still dont agree, past failing of someone else doesn’t pale new mistakes, 72 mill is a f%&k ton of money regardless of past failings from wenger or anyone else.

          6. ThirdManJW says:

            You’re right, 72 mil is a lot, but nothing compared to all the duds we kept buying under Wenger, and all the players either sold on the cheap or nothing as contracts were constantly left to run down. We lost WAY more money under Wenger and Gazidis. Just Ozil alone will be around 120 million for one good season!

          7. Dan says:

            Wenger left a few months after Ozil extended his contract
            From that point onwards it’s Emerys and Arteta job to get best out of him
            Both at time chose to freeze him out and paid for it in terms of Leauge position

          8. Dan says:

            With respect can tell some didn’t grow up with Wenger
            Yes of course mistakes were made in running down contracts but idea that Wenger didn’t make Arsenal money
            Profit on Anelka ?
            Toure ?
            Fabregas ?
            Vanpersie?
            Viera?
            Henry ?
            The ox ?
            Nasr?
            Clichy
            Song
            Loads

            Name me any club and I can point to mistakes made and money wasted

      4. Mark says:

        Let them blame Wenger all they wish.I cannot see a Wenger team with no creativity from midfield…

  2. Herbz says:

    Am tired of hearing people’s excuses of “Wenger left dross, blah blah”

    Continue dreaming. Wenger is a coach that hugely deserves respect.

    Wenger had flair but his problem was few tacklers in the team. Tackling is a joint effort by the whole team, not just one individual.

    Arteta’s Arsenal is both boring and virtually passenger-like off the ball. There’s absolutely NOTHING that these guys have changed yet they’ve been backed big time in the market.

    We have a title sustaining squad but we have”gamblers” in charge. So people shouldn’t use Wenger’s excuses on our poor performances.

    1. Loose Cannon says:

      Sir,
      whose signed these players? Mustafi, Xhaka, laca, Kolasinac, Elneny, Mkhitaryan and that too on high wages.
      Who let players run down contracts?
      Ramsey, Sanchez, Ozil
      Who let go of natural talent? Gnarby, Mollen, Ismael, Schzney and persisted playing trash week after week.
      It will take time and money for this trash to get out of this club. I wrote off this season before the first match as the core of the team still plays every week. What ever we achieve is a gift and blessing.
      our season starts in 2021, till then painfully digest what these dross give us.
      Anyways best of luck to the team against Man U. Demand 3 points, but have learnt to be humble and not to grumble after the final whistle

      1. Herbz says:

        This is what is called jumping on the bandwagon….

        Only 2 of those players are actually starting matches

      2. Dan says:

        The core of the team ?
        Leno ?
        Tierney?
        Luiz ?
        Gabriel ?
        Ceballos ?
        Partey ?
        Pepe?
        Willian ?
        Mari ?
        Cedric ?
        Sokertise ?
        If that team fails you can’t blame Wenger
        How many times do Chelsea sack managers , do you think Roman says have time to sort out a mess
        Do you think Carlo Ancelottie at Everton says don’t blame me because I inherited a mess ?

        1. ThirdManJW says:

          Its also the culture that Wenger left as well Dan. That doesn’t just disappear the second Wenger left.

          1. Dan says:

            I agree mate
            No manager leaves a club in a perfect state
            But that’s not why we finished 8th
            It’s not why we lost 3 out of 6 games
            It’s not why we lack creativity

  3. Ed says:

    Nice article, Dan.
    There were and are other holes in Arsenal’s “business” plan. Revenue streams from tv rights mean stadium size isn’t the crucial driver of income and investment in larger grounds isn’t necessarily the way to maximise sporting return.
    Arsenal’s “sustainable” model ignores that clubs, from the smallest to the global, can and often are sustained by those who are part of the club. Clubs can be successfully sustained by the contributions
    of ordinary supporters and those in the directors’ box. I pay to watch my team. Roman Abramovich does the same!

    I agree with you that the winners were us fans but, maybe stupidly today, I like to think that win or lose as a supporter I am part of Arsenal.

  4. jon fox says:

    Excellent article DAN, ESP FOR THOSE WHO ARE TOO YOUNG TO KNOW ALL THESE HAPPENINGS.

    Looking at the wider football picture, I actually think it healthy that the same old clubs do not dominate for too long. Liverpol and Citys iron grip on our Prem is also now much loosened and that too is healthy. “Plus ce change…..” etc is only partly true.

    Our time will come again and sooner than some think but I DO urge patience, which equals wisdom.

  5. Iykmatt says:

    Thirdmanjw&loose cannon are addicted to hatred towards wenger,so it’s better you guys ignore their often primitive opinion about wenger

    1. Kenny says:

      They are primitive and narrow in analysing a manager. After 3rdManJW’s reply, I don’t bother to reply him. He mentioned only one factor which is shallow and not objective.

      I will put the blame of Arsenal’s trophy-less solely on the owner.

      Why Arsense Wenger is among the top few managers? I keep it in short and in points form in the following paragraph. If you are interested, google and you can find a lot of materials.
      1. Result: 20 years out of 22 years in Top 4 with tight budget. Not any Tom and Harry can do it.
      2. Eyes for young potential promising players and nurture them: Henry, Patrick Viera, Nasri, Robin Van Perse, Cesc Fabregas and many more.
      3. Profit & Financial Prudence: https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/arsenal-financial-results-6-things-5243646
      4. Yearly top 10 ranking of value soccer clubs. Google it.
      5. Respect: He earned the respect of Alex Ferguson, Klopp,
      Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. Google it.
      6. The EPL Invincible
      7. Ordinal players play well for Arsenal but not elsewhere. E.g. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Francis Coquelin & etc.

      There are many more to add. Not a writer so keep it simple.

  6. Winston says:

    Blame the manager. Blame the owner. Blame change. Blame God.

    If only our team plays the real game as well as our fans play the blame game

    1. Sue says:

      That, Winston, is top-notch 👍

      1. Winston says:

        Thank you, Sue.

        Would much rather be a Gunner than a blamer

  7. Sue says:

    That was a super read, Dan, thank you!
    Those were the days.. with regards to finishing in the top 4 – you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!!

    It’s a long slog back to where we belong, but we can do it!

    1. Dan says:

      Cheers sue
      My biggest fan

  8. Joe. S says:

    Yes,Wegner is a legend but he also left the club in a hole,something which will take years to dig our way out of. My gripe is not that he didn’t spend his way to success,but that he was always ready to be the mouthpiece for his bosses,coming up with idiotic excuses about only being interested in top quality players while year by year the actual quality of the squad was disintegrating and players who could have made Arsenal more competitive were being snapped up by lesser clubs. All that nonsense while his own salary was astronomical. Regarding the quality of the football though, I really miss it and am finding it difficult to get used to the boring structures the past two managers have tried to introduce.

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