At my primary school there were two groups: the Arsenal fans and the Manchester United fans. There were a few more exotic teams; West Ham weren’t even in the Premiership for a while. Being a hipster I went for an obscure team called, erm, Liverpool. But when Arsenal played Manchester United everyone cared, there was an acceptance that this would decide the title or, if the game was in the cup, would decide who would go on to defeat Newcastle/Liverpool/Chelsea in the final. This season is different though – the match today will not be the most important played this weekend. Ironically it’s the two teams’ local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, who will have a bigger impact on the title race when they meet at Eastlands. However when Wenger and Ferguson have met over the last decade or so the games have tended to define English football in some way.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal – FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999
Back in 1999 Sir Alex Ferguson still cared about the FA Cup. A year later he would choose to compete in the World Club Championships instead of the tournament, and a little bit of the ‘magic of the cup’ that pundits still obsess over was gone forever. As a last hurrah for the cup’s respectability though this was a fitting game. In hindsight this games seems like a microcosm of an era in English football; David Beckham scored with a curling effort from outside the box, Dennis Bergkamp equalised with a perfectly placed shot, Roy Keane got sent off and Phil Neville gave away a penalty. Oh and Ryan Giggs took his shirt off.
After this Manchester United went on to win the treble, still the pinnacle in Fergie’s career (the world club championships didn’t go too well) and in many ways the football landscape changed after this. Although it would be another six years until Roman Ambramovich funded Chelsea to the title they began pushing up the table before this, whilst Liverpool and Newcastle both found themselves challenging for trophies and European qualification; this game was the highlight of the monopoly these clubs had for a few years.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Arsenal, Premier League, 21st September 2003
‘Goals are overrated’ is the motto of the Blizzard, and this game definitely supports that theory. Unfortunately it’s not brilliant defensive tactics or two passing teams constantly outmanoeuvring each other that made this game stand out. Both sides did line up defensively, with Arsene Wenger dropping Pires and Wiltord for the less glamorous Parlour and Ljunberg whilst Manchester United played a 4-3-2-1, with Roy Keane taking command in a defensively minded midfield. Even with the likes of Cristano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistlerooy in attack United only managed five shots on target in the game. Arsenal, with Henry and Bergkamp leading the line managed none. Viera, rather predictably, received a red card but it was a last minute penalty that made this game infamous as Van Nistlerooy blasted against the crossbar. Arsenal’s players, dignified as ever, shouted, screamed and generally lost all human control right in front of the Dutch striker, cue the inevitable fight at the final whistle; both clubs had players charged by the FA whilst Arsenal were also charged with failing to control their players.
Once again it defined what was happening in English football. The actual match was in truth dull, with neither side creating enough chances to make it a classic in the way the 1999 game was. Arsenal were about to go on their ‘invincible’ streak of 49 league games without a loss, and you could see the nucleus of this determined team in the way Keown and Toure led the backline. Had Sol Campbell not been out for this game then perhaps Arsenal would have been even stronger. At the same time Manchester United was in one of their rebuilding phases – life in a post-Beckham world was not looking so great and Ronaldo was still finding his feet. There was also something to be said for the kind of player emerging; one of the fines issued to Ashley Cole was for ‘involvement in a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo after the final whistle’, a phrase that makes the skin crawl. The players were becoming more than media stars, they were objects of entertainment for our pleasure. More and more every aspect of their lives was ours and the likes of Ronaldo and Cole could propel themselves into the public eye through more than good performances. The way this game was called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’ highlights more than just the laziness of the media; it revealed that what the audience wanted was, more often than not, this kind of off the pitch event, rather than a great on the pitch performance.
Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal, Premier League, 28th August 2011
The moment Arsenal fans were dreading. After years of floating around meaninglessly, living only with the vague memories of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp and that invicible campaign that was so nearly bettered by Huddersfield, Arsenal finally had to live up to a decline. At the same time though, so does English football. Wenger’s continued insistence on a particular style of football was revolutionary when it first came. In fact I admire any team that sticks to its game plan, be they Barcelona with tikka takka or Jose Mourinho’s Inter with their calico style defending. However when that style doesn’t work something needs to be done. Since Wenger’s arrival nearly every club has adopted similar ideas, introducing nutrition programmes and different styles of training. Arsenal are no longer unique and, whilst they are undoubtedly a good team, Wenger’s insistence on his way and his methods will continue to hold them back.
The same is true of English football in general. Whilst we have rested on the laurels of our club teams’ Champions League performances for the last few years uncomfortable questions about the national team and the general state of football in England have gone unnoticed. Now, with Manchester United and Manchester City out of the Champions League, these questions are becoming less ignorable. The likes of Germany and Spain have already moved out of reach for the next few years at least, and the calls for Harry Redknapp to take over from Capello only make me despair even more. We seem unable to recognise the tactical side of the game, the side that requires a good manager and good teamwork instead of individual talent. Whilst we fail to understand this English football will remain in stagnation, like an Arsenal team who have been so content with ‘doing okay’ these past five years.
(Sorry about the music)