April 19, 2022 5 min read
Since the Premier League formed, there have been several evergreen fixtures: the North London derby between Spurs and Arsenal; the London derby between Chelsea and Spurs; the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton; the North-West derby contested by a team who have won 19 league titles (Liverpool) and the team who knocked them off their perch with a 20th title in 2013 (Manchester United).
For at least a decade, the blockbuster fixture in the division pitted Arsenal against Manchester United. In 1996, Arsène Wenger was appointed as manager of his near namesake and within 18 months had turned the club around to such an extent that he won both the Premier League and the FA Cup. Manchester United had done this themselves in 1996, helped by young players like David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville Brothers, as well as the catalysing Frenchman Eric Cantona.
The gaffer from Alsace, however, had his own French talent. In the midfield Patrick Vieira, poached from under Ajax’s nose, and Emmanuel Petit, whom Wenger had coached at Monaco, came in to shore up the Arsenal midfield. Dennis Bergkamp found a partner in Thierry Henry, whom Wenger converted from a misfiring winger into a modern centre-forward. Robert Pirès became a key part of their forward play, while the red-haired playmaker Freddie Ljungberg became a fan favourite.
In his memoir from 2020, Wenger wrote that he wanted to bring ‘greater technical solidity’ to the team, which is a euphemism for keeping clean sheets with a younger first XI. The old guard – Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, captain Tony Adams – were going to retire soon, with their bodies battered by the service they had given to the club. It was a transformation from ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ into the new team who would enjoy an unbeaten league season in 2003/04.
In that season, the two games between Arsenal and Manchester United ended in draws: 0-0 at Old Trafford and 1-1 at Highbury. Arsenal went on to finish 15 points ahead of United, who were beaten by a Chelsea team about to be injected with millions of pounds from their owner Roman Abramovich. With Arsenal soon to move into their Ashburton Grove stadium, economics graduate Wenger knew he had less money to spend on new players and it was no surprise that Chelsea surpassed them as United’s main rivals.
Famously it was Manchester United who brought Arsenal’s unbeaten run of 49 games to an end in November 2004 (more on which shortly). Arsenal did finish six points ahead of United that season in second, trailing Chelsea by 12. That six-point deficit was a direct result of their two losses against United, who beat them 4-2 at Highbury thanks to two goals in five minutes from their own superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two clubs met in December 2021 and, amazingly, 17 seasons later two Ronaldo goals helped United take three points. The United line-up included two players who came through the Academy while Ronaldo was becoming one of the top footballers in the world: Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford were respectively seven and six years old back in 2004!
In turn, Ronaldo was a young child himself in October 1990 when almost every player and coach was involved in a brawl following a rash tackle by Nigel Winterburn. It led to points deductions and fines, though Arsenal won the game 1-0 and the 1990/91 First Division title that season, losing only once. United came sixth, fully 24 points behind Arsenal, but won the Cup Winners’ Cup to start a similar run of consecutive seasons in European competition which Arsenal would enjoy under Arsène Wenger.
The Alsatian was in charge in February 1997, with United on the way to a fourth Premier League win in five seasons. Ian Wright famously jumped into a tackle on Peter Schmeichel, after he had been flagged for offside, which injured the Danish keeper. The following season, a Marc Overmars goal separated the sides and decided the 1997/98 title, by which point the pantomime rivalry between Vieira and Roy Keane was a perfect subplot of any Arsenal-United fixture.
In October 2004, with Arsenal looking to extend their unbeaten league run to 50 games, a stormy game was full of awful tackles, two of them coming from Gary Neville on Jose Reyes. After a foul on Wayne Rooney by Sol Campbell, Ruud van Nistelrooy did what he couldn’t do against Arsenal in a previous game and scored his penalty. Rooney added a second and, in the tunnel afterwards, pizza slices were thrown at Alex Ferguson by Cesc Fabregas. Arsenal did manage to beat United on penalties in that season’s FA Cup final.
In 2009, Champions League holders Manchester United met Arsenal in the semi-finals. A John O’Shea goal gave United a 1-0 advantage going into the second leg, where two more Ronaldo goals helped them advance to the final.
By this time, both managers had refreshed their teams at least twice: Arsenal were captained by Cesc Fabregas and had a front three of Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor; United captain Rio Ferdinand lined up next to Nemanja Vidic in defence, behind a midfield three of Anderson, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. Ryan Giggs, who had been at United for 18 seasons, came off the bench in that second leg.
Two years later, the enormous gulf in class was evident in United’s 8-2 home win early in the season. Robin van Persie missed a penalty and Ashley Young curled in two scorchers. Wayne Rooney did the same with two free-kicks and he completed a hat-trick with a penalty. Nani clipped in a cheeky fifth and, worse for Arsenal, they finished the game with ten men when Carl Jenkinson was sent off for barging into Javier Hernandez. Despite this, United were pipped to the league title by Manchester City with the last kick of the last game. Signing van Persie brought United title number 20 the following season, and the time was right for Ferguson to hang up the hairdryer.
Wenger soldiered on for five more seasons but, following Ferguson’s retirement, Arsenal only won once in the next six Premier League meetings. In March 2016 Marcus Rashford scored twice in a 3-2 win to take his tally to four goals in three days. Arsenal then brought United’s six-month, 25-match unbeaten streak in the Premier League to an end with a 2-0 win at the end of the 2016/17 season, with goals from Granit Xhaka and former United striker Danny Welbeck. By this point, José Mourinho was in the United dugout after David Moyes and Louis van Gaal had been and been paid off.
It was Wenger’s turn to depart in 2018 after Arsenal failed to qualify for European competition. United won the famous fixture 3-1 at the Emirates, with two Jesse Lingard goals. Days after Wenger announced his departure, United needed an injury-time goal from Marouane Fellaini to win the home game. Both sides have been surpassed by Liverpool and Manchester City, who now attract the attention that United and Arsenal used to attract when they play one another.
Ladies and gentlemen, please charge your glasses to a rivalry that may well spark back into life this Saturday lunchtime. There is a fine selection of drinks including four special vodkas either for yourself or to give as a gift to the Arsenal fan in your life.