Retrospective #15: The Ultimate Rivalry: Manchester United and Arsenal 1997-2005

Manchester United and Arsenal, from 1997 to 2005, undoubtedly engaged in the era-defining rivalry in English football. In order to be classified as a great sporting rivalry the protagonists must move beyond the feudalistic; the edge and the aggro, and be ultimately characterised by supreme competition and a bountiful supply of dramatic and heart-stopping moments. The other great sporting rivalries of the 2000s – Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal; the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots; Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld – all contained those crucial elements at their core.

Barring some occasional minor rumbling, the long-standing rivalry between Man United and Arsenal had lain dormant since the late seventies but it erupted again spectacularly at Highbury in November 1997 and overflowed with blood and thunder for the next eight years. David Platt’s late, looping winner for Arsenal that Sunday evening at the climax of a gripping struggle was the prelude to years of continuous artistry and aggression, class and conflict.

Highlights during this period included Ryan Giggs’ mesmeric FA Cup semi-final extra-time winner; a Dwight Yorke-inspired 6-1 thrashing of the Gunners at Old Trafford; and Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s magnificent solo goal in April 2003. Lowlights: Thierry Henry’s majestic flick and volley over Fabien Barthez at Highbury; Barthez’ meltdown at Highbury and Sylvain Wiltord’s winner at Old Trafford in 2001/2002; and the Martin Keown-led baiting of Van Nistelrooy by The Invincibles.

United v Arsenal at this point in time was a vivid illustration of the Premier League’s golden age and always contained unforgettable footballing theatre. And throughout the 7 years of warfare, the focal point remained unchanged: Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira’s eternal battle for midfield supremacy.

The physically imposing Vieira and the mentally imposing Keane defined this great footballing rivalry. Immense midfield play and captaincy from both parties was punctuated by regular shenanigans. Like Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield feuding for the metaphorical turf of West Baltimore, Keane and Vieira fought for every last inch of the literal turf of Old Trafford and Highbury. Instigation of an on-field 22-man brawl and an obscene tunnel fracas were particularly memorable moments in this colossal confrontation between two rare giants of the modern game.

In 2004/2005, the rivalry reached its pinnacle despite the two sides essentially playing for second place behind Jose Mourinho’s immovable Chelsea. At Old Trafford in late October, Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run was ended by a combination of brutality and blatant cheating by United; a day when betrayal of the club’s principles was ultimately justified, and accepted, due to the end result. This was followed by a Carling Cup victory for United in early December and then the most awe-inspiring game of football I can ever remember, in the return match league match at Highbury.

Not even the most ardent Premier League fans would claim that this was one of the most aesthetically pleasing of matches but the swash and buckle thrill of the English top flight has never been more evident than it was in north London in early February 2005. Battle commencing – almost literally – with Keane and Vieira’s spat in the tunnel, the game lurched from incident to dramatic incident in a breathless showcase of the English footballing mentality. Ironically, almost none of the key figures in this archetypal English match were actually from the green and pleasant land.

Vieira opened the scoring with a towering header; Giggs pegged Arsenal back with a deflected strike before Bergkamp gave Arsenal the half-time advantage sliding the ball under Roy Carroll after Henry’s weighted pass. In the second half United came storming back with a verve and passion that was largely anonymous during the rest of the season. Ronaldo’s quick-fire double gave them a 3-2 lead but Arsenal were given renewed hope when Silvestre was sent-off for a senseless headbutt on Ljungberg. The Londoners pushed forward to exploit their man advantage but O’Shea took advantage at the other end finishing off a delightful move by nonchalantly chipping the advancing Almunia.

From the fraught moments in the tunnel pre-match until O’Shea’s unlikely clinching goal, this game was characterised by drama and tension; skill and flair; incident and threat. For these reasons and as the final great battle of this seven-year war between United and Arsenal, this is perhaps my all-time favourite game.

After the battle of Highbury, the rivalry became largely inactive again with United increasingly dominant for the latter half of the decade. Arsenal did win the FA Cup on penalties in 2005 after ‘parking the bus’ for 120 minutes against United, but the sale of Vieira to Juventus left them bereft of any intimidatory presence in midfield and 6 largely irrelevant, trophyless years have followed – mirroring the Barksdale organisation when Avon was finally locked up at the conclusion of season 3. A humiliating Champions League semi-final evisceration by a rampant United was the death knell for the rivalry that defined English football and gave temporary credence to the Best League in the World myth.

This was written by Alistair Walker. You can find more of his excellent work over at Natural Police, “for all your [bloody ace] sporting insight”. And you can follow him on Twitter.

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One response to “Retrospective #15: The Ultimate Rivalry: Manchester United and Arsenal 1997-2005”

  1. Andy B says :

    From a Gooner: Brilliant read, mate…for me the last great rivalry before football in this country was spoilt by financial doping, as typified by the ‘Oil Firm Derby’ last night…listening to commentators wax lyrical about how much City have come on makes me sick…of course they should win it, they have spent the most money and bought their entire team.

    The Keane/ Viera years were awesome…and I have never been more stressed by a game of football then the one at the end of the unbeaten run at Old Trafford…the Neville brothers remain at the top of my hit list for that very reason!

    Good luck for rest of season, hopefully one of us can pip the Oil barons teams to top spot.

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