WBC heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder showed the world in general…
Ask a football fan what the most important and most passionately watched club fixture is in the world right now and you are likely to get one answer - El Clasico. Ask the same question 15 years ago and the answer would likely be ‘Arsenal V Manchester United’. This fixture is one that evokes a lot of sweet and bitter memories for fans of both club. For close to a decade, both teams led the pack in the Premier League with their brands of progressive, attacking football, talented players and passionate, tactically grounded managers. Others teams simply played catch-up. The two teams represented different perspectives in the British footballing sphere. United were the traditional English team, with a strong culture of being a team centered on English talents. Arsenal were the modern English team, with less emphasis on English players, emerging threats desperate to disrupt the scale of footballing glory in England.
The early 90s saw United dominate the Premier league with four trophies between 1992 and 1997. In this time, United only had to contend with the likes of Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United and Liverpool with none of these teams offering a sustained challenge. The entry of a certain Frenchman all the way from Japan –Arsene Wenger in 1996 changed the dynamics of English Football permanently with Arsenal emerging a more direct threat to United’s dominance. This marked the rebirth of an intense rivalry that would become the face of the premier league for years to come.
As both clubs competed directly for premier league crowns over the next six seasons as well as other domestic honours, the rivalry on and off the pitch intensified. Mind games and verbal jabs prior to games was a common prelude. Comments like “it is wrong the league programme is extended so United can rest up and win everything” (by Arsene Wenger) and “He’s coming from Japan and telling us how to run our game” (by Sir Alex) were common place. On the pitch, the intensity of outright attacking football was both visually appealing and emotionally stimulating. Referees and linesmen had a torrid time keeping up with the frenetic pace of play while putting raging emotions from players and managers in check. Arsene and his boys would do a double of FA Cup and Premier League triumphs over United in 1998. The Wily Ol’ Scot and his boys responded in grand fashion the next season by winning the treble of FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League trophies directly beating Arsenal in the League and FA Cup.
The rivalry perhaps reached its peak in the early 2000s with several memorable encounters; Arsenal winning the title after three years at Old Trafford in 2002, the goalless draw in 2003 (Battle of Old Trafford), United ending Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten run in 2004 (Battle of the Buffet), as well as the 2005 FA Cup Final in Cardiff were the stiffest in that time. Individual player rivalries such as the famous Roy Keane V Vieira showdown, both of them captains, Keown V Van Nistelrooy, Ian Wright V Schmeichel provided added spectacles even for the neutrals.
Since 2005, however, the fixture has never been the same again. The rise of the Roman Empire at West London and the coming of the Special One meant that United had a new team to worry about in Chelsea. Both teams would share the next seven Premier League titles post 2004. Also, the emergence of local rivals, Manchester City further relegated the importance of Arsenal in the scheme of things, with City and United winning the next four titles, two apiece. A 2011 8-2 thrashing by United perhaps, most appropriately depicted the gulf between both sides over the years. United have had their own problems since the departure of the Wily Ol’ Scot in 2013, and other players of legendary status. The Red devils have not won the league since 2013 while Arsenal’s last victory dates back nine years prior.
It is quite interesting that the fixture that was for a long time, the face of the EPL, today has no bearing on who wins title. Both sides are currently out of the top four and are desperately scrambling for a Champions League spot. While Arsenal are condemned to win, to retain any chance of qualifying, United have the added advantage of an alternative route via the Europa League.
Football, like every other aspect of human existence is not immune to the winds of change when it does so blow. Players and managers come and go, formations and tactics become extinct and sometimes, get ‘resurrected and repackaged’, teams rise and fall enjoying spells of success and enduring periods of serial failures and frustrations. These are cycles any passionate follower of the game can relate to. Can things ever get back to how they used to be? In the immediate future, not likely. Later, probably. In the meantime, it is safe to say that everyone enjoyed the real Arsenal V Manchester United, while it lasted.
Tijjani Abdulsalam: History lover, football aficionado, public affairs enthusiast and fan of good food