Arsene Wenger said it best when he visited Old Trafford for the last time as Arsenal manager at the end of this April; it was easy for Manchester United to be nice to him because, in his own words, he’s no longer a ‘danger’. That’s certainly been true of his North London side for the best part of the last decade, but that doesn’t stop his intense rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson from continuing to provide both sets of fans with some remarkable memories.
There was something special about this rivalry in its pomp; the bile, the intense competition, the deep dissatisfaction and dislike that both clubs reserved for each other during the late 90s was something else, with Wenger offering Ferguson his first true and sustained rival during the Premier League era. Even after Arsenal fell away from competing for the Premier League title on a consistent basis in the middle of the 2000s, the rivalry retained some status, and contests between the two were an excellent barometer of where they were both headed. Nowadays, it’s remarkable to look at where Arsenal currently sit, 6th in the league and consistently unable to challenge for the game’s biggest honours for the last ten-plus years whilst Ferguson consistently found a way to make his United side competitive throughout his 26 years at Old Trafford. As such, there’s no shortage of memorable moments between these two, and with the Scot’s old foe one game away from an overdue departure from a club that he loves so dearly, let’s dive in to some of the best memories that Wenger’s time at Arsenal has given United fans.
European Sucker Punch
It’s a rare occasion for United to meet a fellow English side in Europe. If memory serves, it’s only happened four times in the last decade, and barring a disastrous defeat to Liverpool in the Europa League under Louis van Gaal, United typically tended to navigate these challenges with aplomb (just ask Chelsea). In the 2008/09 season, Ferguson’s side made perhaps their biggest statement at the Emirates since Arsenal’s relocation from Highbury with a wonderful display in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final tie, ripping apart Wenger’s men with a remarkably ruthless streak that saw the tie done and dusted within the first eleven minutes.
John O’Shea’s goal at Old Trafford in the first leg a week earlier had given United something to take to North London, and it took all of seven minutes for the visitors to add a crucial away goal to leave Arsenal needing three of their own. Cristiano Ronaldo’s low cross prompted an unfortunate slip from young Kieran Gibbs, and Ji-Sung Park looped an effort into the far corner of the net. United’s second of the night was a stunner, Ronaldo rifling in a low rocket of a free kick beyond Manuel Almunia from a remarkable distance. The Spaniard might have done better with the shot, but such was the pace and power that Ronaldo struck the ball with that it was hard to begrudge the Portuguese the goal. The clock hadn’t even struck 11 minutes, and the Emirates was a stunned, silent coliseum, unable to process that the tie was already over before the second leg had even properly begun.
If those two goals were examples of United at their ruthless best under Ferguson, then the third was a wonderful reminder of their ability to punish teams on the counter attack. A sweeping move saw Park feed Wayne Rooney on the left with Arsenal scrambling to recover, with United’s no. 10 sending in an inch-perfect low pass across goal to the onrushing Ronaldo. The finish was seemingly half improvised, such was the speed of his gallop to meet the ball, and he crashed it into the roof of the net almost from a sitting position. The tie was already long-since over, of course, but United’s third on that night was a brutal, glorious punishment.
Arsenal would recover a late goal, and Darren Fletcher would receive a severely unlucky red card that would keep him out of the following final against Barcelona, but in the context of United’s battles with Arsenal, this was a statement. A ruthless, streetwise and powerful dismantling in front of the world on the club game’s biggest stage.
You’d 8-2 be an Arsenal fan…
It’s been some time since United ripped apart a ‘big’ team with glee such as this, but on those occasions where Ferguson’s team were in the mood, they were impossible to live with. On this day, with the 2011/12 season barely a few games old, United were irresistible. A youthful line-up dismantled Wenger’s Arsenal, Danny Welbeck out-muscling some feeble defending to head the opener before David de Gea saved Robin van Persie’s penalty. An exquisite Ashley Young curler from outside of the area doubled United’s lead before Wayne Rooney curled in a goal of his own from a free-kick. Theo Walcott’s late first half goal had suggested that there may be a way back into the game for the Gunners, but United simply refused to stop. Rooney sent in another gorgeous free kick for his second before Nani capitalised on more horrific defending to clip in the cheekiest of finishes for United’s 5th. Young teed up Ji-Sung Park for a low drive, Rooney grabbed a third from the penalty spot and another sumptuous Young drive made Van Persie’s second half strike remarkably redundant.
United were utterly stunning that afternoon, capitalising on Arsenal’s woeful backline and gleefully ripping them to shreds. They showed a relentlessstreak against a rival that is rarely on show, and were clearly geed up to continue enjoying themselves after a successful first half by Ferguson. This was the first time that Arsenal had conceded eight goals since 1896, and whilst the plethora of puns that the scoreline unleashed on the world was bad enough for Gunners fans to withstand, the scoreline, and the manner with which Arsenal were dismantled was an utter humiliation for Wenger’s side. Wonderful stuff.
Stopping the Invincibles
If there’s one achievement that Arsenal fans are predisposed to lauding, it’s the exploits of the Invincibles. Admittedly, their 49-game unbeaten run in the Premier League was stunning, and it might have ended even sooner that Ruud Van Nistelrooy not famously missed a penalty against them early on in the 2003/04 season, with the image of Martin Keown exuberantly celebrating his failure an iconic image from that contest. Their next encounter at Old Trafford in October ’04 was equally bad tempered, with that United side experiencing underachievement and a similar struggle to its current iteration; a plethora of creative players at the manager’s disposal, but no clear plan of how to connect the dots. Still, an absorbing battle ensued, with plenty of contentious challenges and decisions for referee Mike Riley to chew over. There’s an argument to suggest that he got the game’s key moment wrong, given that Wayne Rooney certainly dived under minimal pressure from Sol Campbell for the game’s decisive penalty, but honestly, who cares? Van Nistelrooy sent Jens Lehmann the wrong way in front of the Stretford End, with a cathartic, redemptive celebration following, and Rooney sealed the win after Louis Saha and Alan Smith had combined to set the teenager up with a tap-in.
It was another absorbing scrap, and whilst Chelsea’s exploits would put both teams’ domestic exploits in the shade for the next two seasons, it was proof that United and Arsenal could still throw up a wonderful, bruising, contentious and intense contest from time to time.
Ohhh, Robin van Persie…
Whilst United certainly have Wenger to thank for spurring them and Ferguson on in the late 90s, a certain level of gratitude must also be reserved for the Frenchman for providing us with a player that wound up being the deciding factor in United’s 20th league title triumph. Robin van Persie was arguably the league’s best striker in the summer of 2012, and having told Wenger that he wanted to leave the Emirates having grown tired of the club’s repeated failures in the modern era, Manchester seemed to be his only destination. Van Persie famously described how the little boy inside of him was screaming for Manchester United, which is a good job, as his joining forces with the blue half of the city doesn’t bear thinking about.
The Dutchman was predictably electric in his first season at Old Trafford, scoring a plethora of excellent and important goals all season long. He notched a beautiful dipping effort in his home debut against Fulham, scored a hat-trick against Southampton, registered important strikes against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs and famously delivered a killing injury-time blow against City in that season’s derby at the Etihad. It was almost the perfect first season; Van Persie improved United with his sheer quality, and the Dutchman was seemingly buoyed to be playing in a side that knew how to win, whatever the circumstances. Even during a relative rough patch, his sheer enjoyment at being at United was evident, and an infamous hug for Sir Alex Ferguson after breaking a two-month drought against Stoke City spoke of his affection for his new boss. Indeed, he seemed more affected than most when the Scot announced his retirement, but was still able to confirm that 20th league title with a stunning hat-trick against Aston Villa.
Van Persie would go on to score three goals against his former club, sheepishly holding his hands up after crashing home the opener at Old Trafford that season before receiving a guard of honour from his old colleagues upon his return to the Emirates. And how symbolic that moment was, given the boos levelled at United no. 20 for leaving North London only to return barely eight months later a Premier League champion. For all the bile levelled at Van Persie since leaving Arsenal, it’s impossible to suggest that his decision wasn’t entirely vindicated. Not only that, it was a decision that proved how far the power had shifted between Wenger and Ferguson; the Scot could tempt his old foe’s very best player, with the Frenchman seemingly powerless to stop him, and even after a frustrating few years since Ferguson’s retirement, Wenger’s recent sale of Alexis Sanchez to United suggests that this shift in perception doesn’t show any sign of altering soon.
He gave Giggsy the ball…
No debate for top spot, surely. United’s FA Cup semi-final replay with Arsenal must surely go down in history as the definitive battle between Wenger and Ferguson, a culmination of a titanic struggle in the 1998/99 season that saw both clubs go toe-to-toe for the Premier League and FA Cup.
The Frenchman and his side deserves a good chunk of credit for pushing United all of the way domestically during the treble season, for sure. The Premier League title was only sealed after a come-from-behind victory against Spurs on the season’s final day, and it took 240 minutes of football to separate the clubs in the FA Cup that year, such was the intense level of competition between the sides. They were exceptionally well matched, both operating at close to the peak of their respective powers and that ended up culminating in a 0-0 draw in the original tie. Bearing in mind that United had only just recovered from a bruising 1-1 draw against Juventus in the Champions League a few days previously and an already packed schedule, another game against an intense, powerful foe was far from welcome. But a replay was scheduled at Villa Park for three days later on April 14th, such was the lack of space in United’s respective calendar.
What followed was a remarkable game, one of the most memorable in the club’s history. David Beckham fired in a wonderful curling effort after Teddy Sheringham’s lay-off on 17 minutes, and United would hold onto that lead until the 69th minute, with Dennis Bergkamp firing in a bouncing effort beyond Peter Schmeichel from outside of the area. Nicolas Anelka thought he’d given his side the lead barely minutes afterwards, and enjoyed a remarkably prolonged celebration with his teammates before realising that he’d been correctly flagged for offside after Bergkamp’s initial shot was fumbled by Schmeichel.
Arsenal had the wind in their sails at this stage, and United were rocking. Again, barely minutes after Anelka’s goal was cancelled out came the game’s next definitive moment, with Roy Keane hacking down Marc Overmars to earn his second booking and a completely unarguable sending off from David Elleray. Playing against Arsenal with 11 men was difficult enough; playing with 10 without your influential captain…well, it’s almost a miracle that United made it out of this game. Of course, the drama was far from over; Phil Neville was deceived by Ray Parlour’s tricky run into the penalty area and brought him tumbling down in stoppage time. Elleray pointed to the spot, and Neville’s reaction said it all, unable to argue with the decision and clasping his head in his hands.
He needn’t have worried, of course; Bergkamp’s penalty was well struck to Schmeichel’s left but the Dane was equal to it, wildly shouting and pushing his colleagues away as he saved the resulting penalty. The Dutchman would come close again in the first half of extra time, firing an excellent effort towards the top corner only to be thwarted by United’s no.1 again. Schmeichel injured himself in the process, which only added to the tension and meant Gary Neville was enlisted for goal kick duty.
And then, that moment. Patrick Viera famously loses possession in the middle of the park, and having been pinned back for most of extra time, Ryan Giggs took the ball and did something extraordinary. That goal still beggars description, but the close control, the skill to avoid the onrushing Frenchman and Arsenal’s back four before firing a most wonderful shot into the roof of the net were all on a level that precious few footballers will ever reach.
United celebrated wildly. Even with 11 minutes to go, they believed that they had struck a decisive blow, even with Arsenal’s numerical advantage. Thankfully, they were right, too. This was a stunning game of football, serving up levels of drama rarely seen in any game, but the added effect of turning over Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side added an extra layer of intensity. This was the side that provided Ferguson’s first real challenge during the Premier League era, and having lost the double to them a year previously, to strike such a significant blow in a game as tightly contested as this felt like a hammer blow. It’s the sort of game that haunts the loser, and provides the most wonderful nostalgia for the victor. It’s the defining game of Wenger’s battles with Ferguson, and the best example of how far these two teams pushed each other.