Arsenal vs Man United rivalry is the Premier League's best

Verbal jousts between Wenger and Ferguson, Keown screaming at Van Nistelrooy, Keane and Vieira duking it out and the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’… Arsenal vs Man United will always be THE rivalry of the Premier League era and it could heat up again

  • Manchester United versus Arsenal was the defining Premier League rivalry for the best part of a decade
  • Arsene Wenger arrived in English football in 1996 and immediately threatened Alex Ferguson’s dominance
  • Matches between the two clubs would define entire seasons and were always high voltage encounters
  • The managers would trade mind games beforehand and often the fall-out would last for weeks, even months
  • The animosity peaked with incidents such as Keown vs Van Nistelrooy and the 2004 ‘Pizzagate’ match
  • With Arsenal leading the title race and Man United coming back, it’s possible it could become a rivalry again 

A match between Arsenal and Manchester United that has something riding on it? It’s been a while.

With the Gunners storming clear at the top of the Premier League table and United also in the title shake-up, it really does feel like old times.

While United’s two dropped points at Crystal Palace represented a setback, be in no doubt that a victory at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday afternoon would put them right back in the hunt.

The personal feud between Manchester United’s Roy Keane (left) and Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira came to define a high-voltage rivalry between the two clubs between 1997 and 2004 that defined several Premier League seasons

Arsenal defender Martin Keown screams in the face of Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy after he missed a stoppage-time penalty during the clubs’ infamous 2003 meeting at Old Trafford at the start of the Gunners’ Invincible season

Sir Alex Ferguson debates with Arsene Wenger during a meeting of the two clubs at Highbury in 2004. The psychological battle between these two brilliant managers contributed to the ferocity of the two teams’ rivalry on the pitch

And for those football fans of a certain age who cherished the high voltage rivalry between the two clubs between about 1997 and 2004, this would be very welcome indeed.

It remains the defining clash of the Premier League era – the skirmishes between Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel, the brutal battles involving Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown screaming in Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face, and the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’, the list goes on.

That was just on the pitch. For a good few years, Arsene Wenger well and truly got under the skin of Sir Alex Ferguson, challenging United’s dominance of the Premier League’s early years and succeeding in overhauling them.

Their encounters never failed to produce drama and controversy. They were also usually of season-defining importance, deciding who won the league title and other competitions.

Whole campaigns, Doubles and Trebles hinged on these blockbuster games, the actual action typically bookended by pre-match mind games and bitter post-match recriminations.

Touchline arguments between the two highly-driven managers, such as this 2004 one at Highbury, became regular sights

There’s no mistaking the delight on Ferguson’s face after United equalised against Arsenal at Highbury in March 2004

But not long after Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ went the 2003-04 campaign undefeated, it fizzled out into just another fixture.

While Ferguson would build further great teams at Old Trafford, their principal foes switched from Arsenal to Chelsea and then ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City.

Wenger’s Arsenal, aside from isolated title bids, declined into a team that was just content to finish in fourth and make the Champions League.

When Ferguson left the stage in 2013, United suffered the same fate, drifting along and relying a little too much on happy nostalgia.

Soon the fixture was a shadow of its previous self, a dull fourth-place play-off totally lacking in the old excitement. It all got a bit too friendly, with no edge.

Indeed, when was the last United vs Arsenal league fixture with something on it?

Arsenal seem to be passing every test at the moment having established a healthy advantage at the top of the table

A delighted Mikel Arteta celebrates Arsenal’s north London derby win over Tottenham last Sunday – and it’s United next

United are also enjoying a successful season after Erik ten Hag overhauled the team and raised standards at Old Trafford

United manager Erik ten Hag was left shaking his head as United drew at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, conceding late on

You’d probably have to say April 2008, when Owen Hargreaves curled home a free-kick as United came from behind to win 2-1 at Old Trafford, ending Arsenal’s title hopes and bolstering their own.

There have been cup meetings, notably the 2009 Champions League semi-final, but it’s been a long time since they were both up at the top of the table.

Yet here we are. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are reaping the rewards of patience after the Spaniard built them back up into a title-challenging force. Erik ten Hag has just started a similar process at United.

Their first meeting this season, back at the start of September, was controversial with Gabriel Martinelli seeing an early opener ruled out by VAR for a foul in the lead-up. It remains Arsenal’s only league defeat of the season.

Gabriel Martinelli fired home what he thought was Arsenal’s opening goal at Old Trafford in September – but it was ruled out

Martinelli was left incredulous by the VAR decision to disallow his goal because of a foul by Martin Odegaard in the build-up

You can only imagine what Fergie and Wenger would have thought of the video technology during the peak of their rivalry.

After United had seen off brief challenges from Blackburn and Newcastle to their hegemony in the Premier League’s early years, the arrival of Wenger at Highbury in October 1996 led to the emergence of another threat.

The Frenchman was suave and studious, embracing all the latest methods to extract the maximum from Arsenal’s players. Ferguson was at first dismissive of Wenger, but quickly had to reappraise.

In a sign of things to come, there was an early skirmish when Wright raised his studs competing for the ball with Schmeichel in a 1997 match at Highbury, that led to a big bust-up with police separating them and the striker accusing the United keeper of racism.

The Dane was never charged following a Football Association investigation.

Ian Wright collides with Peter Schmeichel during a 1997 match at Highbury that lit the blue touchpaper on a decade of rivalry

Wright accused Schmeichel of racism following their ugly confrontation at Highbury during the 1996-97 campaign

That lit the blue touchpaper for almost a decade of animosity and the war of words between the two managers soon began.

In a row over fixture scheduling late in the 1996-97 season, Wenger said: ‘It’s wrong the programme is extended so Manchester United can rest and win everything.’

To which Ferguson retorted: ‘Maybe he should concentrate on Ian Wright’s tackles rather than Manchester United. He’s at a big club, well Arsenal used to be a big club, and maybe next year he could be in the same situation. I wonder what his story will be then.

‘He has no experience of English football. He has come from Japan and now he is telling us how to organise our football… he should keep his mouth shut, firmly shut.’

Fergie also took a swipe at Wenger’s linguistic skills: ‘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!’

The mirth certainly faded when Arsenal won a league and cup Double in 1998, with Marc Overmars famously racing clear of United’s defence to earn a crucial 1-0 win at Old Trafford.

Mark Overmars scores past Schmeichel at Old Trafford in 1998 as Arsenal beat United to win their first Premier League

By claiming the Premier League and the FA Cup in 1997-98, Arsene Wenger stopped the dominance of Manchester United

It was all the more galling for Ferguson because United had been 12 points ahead in the title race, with some bookmakers confident enough on their victory to pay out on bets.

United responded in style to win a historic Treble of league, FA Cup and Champions League a year later, walking a tightrope of a fixture schedule to remain on track in all three competitions.

The FA Cup semi-final between the two rivals was absolutely epic, settled in extra time in the replay when Ryan Giggs slalomed through the Arsenal defence to blast past David Seaman.

Arsenal were crushed because they should have won the match. Roy Keane had been sent off and Dennis Bergkamp saw a last-minute penalty saved by Schmeichel.

Wenger would later reflect: ‘Giggs’s goal was what decided their season. I think that goal won them the Treble because if Bergkamp scores I think the game was over.

Ryan Giggs scores his memorable solo goal as United beat Arsenal in an epic FA Cup semi-final en route to their 1999 Treble

Ferguson with Nou Camp hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the spoils of Man United’s 1998-99 Treble-winning season

A mass skirmish between the two sides during a Premier League meeting in August 1999 that United won 2-1 at Highbury

‘It was a trauma for us. I can still hear the shouts of their team having won, they just couldn’t believe it because they were down to 10 men.

‘And I think that put them on a wave of euphoria and then they won the title – just.’

The Premier League trophy remained under lock and key at United for the next two seasons, their 6-1 demolition of Arsenal, with Dwight Yorke scoring three, in February 2001 hinted at the demise of the rivalry.

But Wenger was rebuilding Arsenal into an even stronger team, signing the likes of Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell and Robert Pires.

In 2002, they regained the league by winning at Old Trafford thanks to Sylvain Wiltord’s goal – part of another Double – but a memorable Van Nistelrooy solo goal at Highbury in 2003 ensured United wrested the title back.

We’d seen verbal jousts between the managers, some no-holds-barred tackles and the odd mass bust-up, but the most famous incidents were arguably still to come.

Wenger’s team went unbeaten throughout 2003-04 but it could have been very different had Van Nistelrooy converted a contentious late penalty at Old Trafford in September 2003.

Dwight Yorke scores for United in their 6-1 thrashing of Arsenal on their way to their 2000-01 Premier League triumph

A year later and Sylvain Wiltord scored the goal at OId Trafford that completed the Double for Arsenal as the pendulum swung

Van Nistelrooy scores a crucial goal in a 2-2 draw at Highbury during United’s Premier League title success of 2002-03

Instead, it rattled the crossbar in a goalless draw and Van Nistelrooy was jostled by Arsenal players with Keown yelling in his face. Six Arsenal players were charged by the FA, who fined the club £175,000.

Vieira had been sent off a few minutes earlier when he flicked out a boot and the Dutch striker went down in such a way as to ensure a second yellow card was brandished. Vieira later called him a ‘cheat.’

Wenger said: ‘You cannot tell me that Vieira is the devil and Van Nistelrooy is an angel. He looks a nice boy but on the pitch he doesn’t always behave fairly. When Van Nistelrooy went for him, I think it is cheating.’

49 unbeaten games later and perhaps it was inevitable Arsenal’s glorious run would be ended in the backyard of their biggest rivals.

Skirmishes follow Van Nistelrooy’s missed penalty in Man United’s goalless draw with Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2003

That match at Old Trafford led to the reigniting of the rivalry between United and Arsenal as they slugged it out for silverware

Van Nistelrooy, lucky to stay on the field after a studs-up tackle on Ashely Cole, atoned for earlier events by converting a penalty before Wayne Rooney sealed a 2-0 win.

All hell then broke loose in the tunnel. Wenger confronted Van Nistelrooy over his tackle, but Ferguson intervened and told the Frenchman to leave his players alone.

At this point, a slice of pizza came flying across the Old Trafford tunnel – allegedly thrown by Cesc Fabregas – hit Ferguson and splattered all down his clothes, requiring a change before media duties.

Ferguson recalled: ‘In the tunnel Wenger was criticising my players, calling them cheats, so I told him to leave them alone and behave himself.

‘He ran at me with hands raised, saying “what do you want to do about it?”

‘To not apologise for the behaviour of the players to another manager is unthinkable. It’s a disgrace, but I don’t expect Wenger to ever apologise, he’s that type of person.’

October 2004 and various United players argue with Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann during United’s 2-0 victory at Old Trafford

There was atonement for Van Nistelrooy as his penalty ended Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten streak in the Premier League

Wenger remonstrates with referee Mike Riley and his assistants after their long unbeaten stretch came to a halt

Wenger responded: ‘He doesn’t interest me and doesn’t matter to me at all. I will never answer to any provocation from him any more.’

The toxic fall-out from ‘pizzagate’, also known as the ‘battle of the buffet’, rumbled on for months.

Later that season came the infamous pre-match argument between captain Keane and Vieira in the cramped Highbury tunnel, captured live by the Sky Sports cameras.

Keane claimed afterwards that Vieira had tried to intimidate Gary Neville – an ‘easy target’ in his words – leading to jabbed fingers and barbed insults before the game had even kicked off.

Yet the high water mark of the rivalry had already been reached. Across London at Stamford Bridge, Roma Abramovich was spending millions turning Chelsea into title winners.

Keane jabs his finger in the direction of Vieira during their infamous tunnel argument at Highbury in 2005

The animosity between club captains Vieira and Keane was plain to see in meetings between the clubs at the time

Cristiano Ronaldo inspired United to a 4-1 aggregate win over Arsenal in the semi-finals of the 2008-09 Champions League

United’s 8-2 win over their rivals in the Premier League at the start of 2011-12 illustrated the gulf between the two teams

Eventually, there would be a detente between Wenger and Ferguson as Arsenal’s threat to United receded. The Gunners reached the 2006 Champions League final but then settled into a pattern of fourth-placed finishes.

By 2011-12, when United crushed Arsenal 8-2 at Old Trafford, there was an embarrassing gulf between the two clubs.

The pendulum has swung a few times since Ferguson retired in 2013 but now both of these great clubs are on the up once more.

Perhaps the best rivalry of the Premier League will heat up once again.

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