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Manchester United and Arsenal: The Evolution of a Modern Rivalry

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterNovember 14, 2016

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28:  Juan Mata of Manchester United goes past Danny Welbeck of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on February 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Manchester United and Arsenal will meet at Old Trafford on Saturday for the 224th time in their long and rich histories.  

This is a clash between the biggest club in the north and the whole of England, and the biggest in the south and the nation’s capital.

Their rivalry dates back to the 19th century when they first met as Newton Heath and Woolwich Arsenal at Bank Street in October 1894.

However, despite their combined grandeur, success and size, it is a rivalry that would have to wait another century before being ignited.

There were notable skirmishes; the Busby Babes' last game in England was a 5-4 win at Highbury in February 1958, five days before eight of them perished in the Munich air disaster, while the 1979 FA Cup final saw Arsenal dramatically triumph 3-2.

H. Tyn/Associated Press

But it wasn’t until the final decade of the 20th century that a more enduring rivalry would begin to ferment between Arsenal and United.

For United, the rivalry could never compare to Liverpool, Manchester City or Leeds United, and for Arsenal, their greatest foes will always reside at White Hart Lane.

This is a modern rivalry, largely a product of the Premier League era, but for the last quarter of a century it has borne witness to some wonderful footballers and gamesall played against a backdrop of simmering enmity, with just a small dose of mutual respect. 

A real rivalry has always needed to be fuelled by bitterness, which was duly supplied in October 1990 when Arsenal visited Old Trafford.

The Gunners overcame United 1-0 on their way to winning the title, but the game is remembered more for a mass brawl breaking out in the second half after a clash between Denis Irwin and Nigel Winterburn.

Twenty-one players would indulge in a spree of kicking, pushing and shoving that lasted 20 seconds, and surprisingly resulted in only two yellow cards on the day, but the Football Association would later dock Arsenal two points and United one point.

"I tangled with Nigel Winterburn, and all hell broke loose,” former United striker Brian McClair recalled in his book Odd Man Out: A Player's Diary, per The Independent, which is how he describes delivering a few hefty kicks to the Arsenal defender.

“Within a few minutes the red mist had disappeared and I was looking round in disbelief. I couldn't believe what I'd just done. The worst thing of all was watching myself on television behaving very badly. My perceptions had been so badly distorted by rage…”

The bruises have long since faded, but Winterburn astutely reflected: "It probably caused a lot of the bad blood between the sides that has lasted for years.”

Those two docked points could not stop Arsenal winning the First Division title in 1991, but they would soon be overtaken by a United revived by Sir Alex Ferguson, who would guide them to the rebranded Premier League title in 1993, 1994 and 1996.

Arsenal’s response was to appoint the relatively unknown Arsene Wenger in September 1996 to check United’s dominance.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (R) shakes hands with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger after their English Premier League football match at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England on April 13, 2008. United won the game 2-1. AFP PHOTO/PAUL
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Before long a compelling struggle between the two men would come to dominate the English football landscape for the next decade. 

When Wenger arrived from Japan, Ferguson reigned supreme, and the then-United manager at first appeared unconcerned about the bespectacled Frenchman.

In April 1997, with United on the brink of winning the title again, Wenger declared his belief that despite their fixture congestion they should not have their season extended.

Per BBC Sport, a furious Ferguson replied: “He’s a novice and should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”

Within a year, though, the novice proved himself a quick learner and took his revenge by guiding Arsenal to the Premier League title and FA Cup Double in his first full season in English football.

United had held a 12-point lead during that season, but the turning point in the title chase was Arsenal gaining a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March.

14 Mar 1998:  Marc Overmars of Arsenal scores the winner against Manchester United during the FA Carling Premiership match at Old Trafford in Manchester, England. Arsenal won 1-0. \ Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill /Allsport
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Ferguson was rattled, and he bristled at Wenger being hailed as a football guru with his innovative new ideas for players’ diet and training, as the Scot was increasingly cast as the embodiment of the old school.

"Intelligence! They say he's an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages. I've got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages,” Ferguson said, per the Guardian.

But United would discover true greatness can only be attained through the greatness of your own opponents, and Arsenal’s triumph immediately inspired the Red Devils to their greatest season when they won the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League in 1999.

Once again, a clash between the two sides would be the catalyst for success when they met in an FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in April 1999. On that dramatic night, the tie was settled by Ryan Giggs gliding past the entire Arsenal defence, which also gave them the momentum to win the league ahead of the Gunners by a single point.

If Dennis Bergkamp had scored his penalty in the final minute of normal time in the semi-final replay, Arsenal would likely have won both the FA Cup and the title instead.

14 Apr 1999:  Ryan Giggs of Manchester United beats the despairing lunge of Tony Adams of Arsenal to drive the ball past David Seaman to score the winner in the FA Cup Semi Final match played at Villa Park in Birmingham. Manchester United won the game 2-1
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

United would defend their title in 2000 and again in 2001 when they handed Arsenal a 6-1 beating at Old Trafford, but inevitably it was Wenger’s side who stopped them winning a fourth consecutive championship in 2002, which they confirmed with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. 

Per BBC Sport, an ungracious Ferguson branded the new champions as “scrappers who rely on their belligerence, we are the better team.” To which, a gleeful Wenger replied: “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.”

United would regain the title in 2003, which then inspired Arsenal to even greater heights when they won the Premier League the following season by going through the entire campaign unbeaten.

The closest Arsenal came to losing in that season was at Old Trafford in October 2003 when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the final minute of a goalless game. 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Martin Keown of Arsenal shows his feelings at Ruud Van Nistelrooy of Man Utd after Van Nistelrooy missed his penalty during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

At the final whistle, Arsenal defender Martin Keown would goad Van Nistelrooy for his miss, and his belief that the Dutchman was responsible for getting Patrick Vieira sent off earlier in the game, as other Gunners players crowded around him and roughed him up.

Per the Daily Mail, Keown recalled:

There was a team aggression towards him. 

He was involved in an incident with Patrick Vieira shortly before the penalty, when he took a dive, feigned injury and Vieira was sent off. It felt like the last straw for this particular individual. We’d had enough of him and any respect went.

The game was drifting nowhere and then it was like the Alamo, the anger was fuelling. We thought they had got three points and only achieved it by unfair means.

You could say what we did was unforgivable, but we jumped up and down around him.

Arsenal would be fined a record £175,000 for failing to control their players, but it wasn’t enough for Ferguson. He said: “They got away with murder. What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport.”

Naturally, this heightened tensions for Arsenal’s next visit to Old Trafford, when, with delicious timing, they arrived unbeaten in their previous 49 league games and needed one more for the half-century.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United battles with Patrick Vieira of Arsenal during the FA Barclays Premiership match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on October 24, 2004 in Manchester, England.  (Photo b
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It was speculated the Arsenal players were wearing T-shirts proclaiming "50 Not Out" underneath their shirts, but they would never be revealed as United won a typically testy game 2-0 with a strike from Wayne Rooney and a cathartic penalty from Van Nistelrooy.

“All week Arsenal have been banging on about how great it will be to make it to 50 games unbeaten at Old Trafford,” Rooney recalled in his autobiography (h/t BBC Sport). “Big mistake. They fired us up. Fifty games unbeaten? No way. Not at our place.”

The action continued after the game in the tunnel where an enraged Wenger confronted Ferguson, and an unidentified Arsenal player threw a slice of pizza at the United manager, which smeared all over his suit.

“They say it was Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza at me but to this day, I have no idea who the culprit was,” Ferguson wrote in his book, My Autobiography. “The corridor outside the dressing room turned in to a rabble.”

The fines, scraps and name-calling should never obscure how games between Arsenal and United during this era were always thrilling and thunderous affairs. This was football at its best. 

22 Aug 1999:  Roy Keane of Manchester United clashes with Patrick Vieira of Arsenal during the FA Carling Premiership match against Arsenal played at Highbury in London, England.  The match finished in a 2-1 win to Manchester United.  \ Mandatory Credit:C
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

“They were the best encounters because there were no holds barred, everyone was battling and nobody was whinging,” Gary Neville told FourFourTwo (h/t MailOnline).

"I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal," Roy Keane said, per BBC Sport. "I can't think of any other word when I was getting ready to do battle with Arsenal. Hatred was the word. I don't remember liking anybody at Arsenal."

At this time, Keane and Vieira captained their sides and were their manager's voices on the pitch, driving their team-mates on.

In February 2005, they would clash inside the cramped Highbury tunnel when the United captain memorably told his Arsenal counterpart, “I’ll see you out there.” He did, and the Red Devils won 4-2.

“I was just defending Gary Neville [that night],” Keane told me two years ago. “I loved my battles with Patrick, that’s why I played the game.

"You are judged by how you do against the top players, so I loved coming up against Patrick. He was a tough, tough opponent. He used to say he could dominate me, and I would do the same to him. We were like two boxers boasting about what we could do.”

“He is my favourite enemy,” Vieira told ITV4 (h/t The Independent) about Keane. “I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it made sense for me, because I loved every aspect of his game.”

For nine consecutive seasons between 1996 and 2004, United and Arsenal had swapped the title between them, but their duopoly was interrupted with the arrival of Jose Mourinho, who won the Premier League in his first season at Chelsea in 2005.

While United would eventually supplant Chelsea, regaining the title for three consecutive seasons between 2007 and 2009, Wenger is still waiting for his first title since 2004.

No longer being in direct competition would inevitably thaw the relationship between Arsenal and Unitedand their managers.

In August 2009, Wenger told Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail: “Now we have a respectful relationship, but that was not always the case. It has become better since we stopped competing with Manchester United at the top level.”

Manchester United's new signing Robin Van Persie (L) attends a press conference with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England on August 17, 2012. Van Persie joined United in a £24 million ($37 million, 30.6
ANDREW YATES/Getty Images

In his autobiography, published in 2013, Ferguson talked about being “very friendly” with Wenger and finding a “softer centre" within him. 

After the fog of war had lifted, a mutual respect prevailed.

This even extended to Wenger surprisingly selling United his best player, Robin van Persie, in the summer of 2012—a move that would deliver another title for Ferguson in his final season before retirement.

Wenger is still there, but the rivalry with United has cooled since Ferguson’s departure, though the arrival of Mourinho, who has always had a difficult relationship with the Arsenal manager, could change that.

Chelsea's Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho (R) and Arsenal's French manager Arsene Wenger (L) are kept apart by the fourth official Jonathan Moss during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in London on
ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

The rivalry between the clubs was never social, cultural or geographical, it was always based on their proximity to each other in the table. 

At the moment, Arsenal are two points from the summit of the Premier League, while United are off the pace and a disappointing eight points from the top.

It now falls to Mourinho to make United relevant and a threat againand to reignite the once all-consuming rivalry with Arsenal.

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