For the fans living in Manchester & London respectively, maybe the traditional Man Utd-Leeds, Man Utd-City, Man Utd-Liverpool and the London derbies are slightly more important because of the geography and history these signify. But for a global fan of the two clubs, the Man Utd-Arsenal clash used to be the match that mattered. And even the resident Mancunians and Londoners will agree that the Premier League for most part of its two decade existence has been dominated by these two clubs and their ensuing rivalry. Only since the arrival of Mr. Abramovich have the dynamics changed.
Although the first meeting between the two took place some 120 years ago in 1894 (then it was Newton Heath vs Woolwich Arsenal), the duo have regularly faced each other throughout the 20th century including some very noteworthy matches like the 1979 FA Cup Final often called as ‘the Five minute final’ , the last game before the Munich Disaster. (ManUtd won 5-4 at highbury) The rivalry has come to its own in the 1990′s and 2000′s, the major factor being the two men at the helm of their clubs – Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger.
The rivalry sparked in 1990 at Old Trafford when Manutd’s Brian McClair with a view of taking revenge on Arsenal’s Nigel Winterburn (for some comments made by Winterburn a couple of years ago after McClair missed a penalty), kicked him repeatedly after a tackle which resulted in a ‘free for all’ brawl. The match was stopped for about 10 minutes, later on points were deducted from both the sides.
The start of Arsene Wenger’s reign as the Arsenal manager is a significant event in this rivalry not because of some direct event but because he build a great team that would go onto win the league and cup double in just his second season, denying Manutd the first ever Premier League hat-trick of titles. Man Utd, however, did go on to complete the hat-trick of titles in the next three seasons, while Arsenal finished 2nd on all three occassions. This statistic itself shows what a Man Utd-Arsenal game would have meant at that time, A 6-pointer every time they faced each other.
Infact such was their domination, that from the 1995-96 season to the 2003-04 season only the two clubs shared the Premier league title; Man Utd winning six times, while Arsenal winning the remaining three times. Arsenal winning the 2000-01 title in Old Trafford in the penultimate game-week of the season and the celebrations is something the gunners always relish while the Red-Devils wish they had slept early that night (me included). The two managers’ will to win which dawned upon their teams too, made this one of the most absorbing football rivalries.
As the title supremacy war continued, so did the battles on the pitch. ‘The battle of Old Trafford’ took place on the 21st september 2003, although the result was a goalless draw, the match became famous because of the 30-odd fouls, 8 yellow (4 each) and 1 red card for Arsenal captain Patrick Viera for trying to kick Man Utd’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy and the penalty miss by the striker in the dying moments of the match, after which Arsenal Martin Keown celebrated all around Ruud Van with his arms completely stretched. This penalty miss was really momentous as the conversion of it would have meant a 1-0 win for Manutd and thus Arsenal would not have gone unbeaten the whole season, winning them the nickname ‘Invincibles’
The ‘Battle of the Buffet’ took place the following season, by this time the Arsenal unbeaten run had gone on to 49 games. The match is remembered mostly by the Man Utd faithful as the one that finally ‘killed the Invincibles’. A 2-0 win for Utd with goals from Ruud Van and the man who has made a career by scoring against Arsenal – Wayne Rooney ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run. From my point of view, Arsenal have never been the same again.
The second match of the season is best remembered for the tunnel bust-up between the two captains Roy Keane and Viera. That altercation before the match was so gripping that through-out the match it seemed that Viera was out of sorts (although he did score). Roy Keane had won the argument, Utd went on to win the match 4-2, one of the best away victories for the fans. Ironically, Arsenal won the next match between the two which was the FA Cup final (their last trophy), but have since lost the war.
Even the Arsenal fans will have to agree, it’s been a downhill slide for them since then. Seven seasons without a trophy for a club like Arsenal is nothing short of a disaster. This has shifted the priorities and the attention of both the clubs and their managers. While Utd have since found new rivals in cash-rich Chelsea, in the last couple of seasons their rivalry with their cross city rivals Man City has risen to unparalleled heights. Arsenal’s lack of silverware means their main challenge over the last 5-6 years has shifted to getting direct qualification for Champions league and the cup competitions. While no one denies the quality of passing football they could play on their day but sustaining that over 38 games and winning the league (forgive the pun) has proved to be out of their league.
This brings us to the current scenario and Robin Van Persie. Since that FA Cup win, Arsenal have lost all their key players – Veira, Henry, Fabregas (all three club captains before leaving), Nasri, Clichy, Cole and many others. But the transfer of RVP is much different and has greater implications. On 16th August 2011, RVP officially signed for and was unveiled as a Manchester United player. RVP had scored 30 goals in the last season, close to 40% of Arsenal’s goals, and was involved if not directly in many others. Club Captain, their marquee player! The one Arsenal player who on his talent can walk into the playing 11 of almost every other club in the world.
How can Arsenal afford to sell such an asset to their main rival?? Answer: perhaps because even Arsenal don’t consider Utd their main rival now. Perhaps the fight for the 4th place with Tottenham, Liverpool and NewCastle is the challenge now. If money was a key issue they could have sold him to Juventus. Even if they had taken the risk of keeping him for his last season and seeing what happened next, they would have lost a huge chunk of money. But RVP choosing Man Utd over Arsenal gives the indication that the level of both the clubs is not the same anymore. And he has choosen the higher level now.
As a Man Utd fan, the indications of the rivalry subsiding have been observed for some time now. A 4-0 Utd win in 2008, a comfortable Champions league semi-final victory in 2009 & the 8-2 humiliation Arsenal suffered suggest the gap is growing. Even the most ardent of the fans (me included) could never have dreamt about a 7th heaven & here we were scoring not 5, not 6, not 7, but 8 goals. 8 goals against the team that used to be the main obstacle. And now with RVP’s transfer, it seems that Arsenal have thrown in the proverbial towel.
Maybe RVP scoring against Arsenal, Arsenal fans booing him and providing him a welcome like the Barca faithful gave Luis Figo on his return to Nou-Camp as a Galactico will re-ignite the flame and give the rivalry a new life. But certainly for a football fanatic its a shame to see such a great rivalry get diluted.