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Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger shout instructions during a match in September 2006

United and Arsenal: The Wenger years

Sunday marks the end of an era. Not just for Arsenal fans – who will see the longest-serving manager in their club’s history lead them into battle at Old Trafford for the final time – but for United fans, too.

The match will be Arsene Wenger’s 60th against the 20-times champions of England, which means he is our most familiar managerial foe – and by quite some distance.

The Strasbourg-born supremo’s current tally of 59 matches against us puts him 10 clear of the next man, Brian Clough, and 11 clear of Harry Redknapp. Both faced United with different clubs, but Wenger has done so only with the Gunners.

That alone would be remarkable enough, but then you remember the contests, the moments, the matches themselves. It’s no exaggeration to say that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal fronted up to Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United like few other opponents.

Sir Alex Ferguson says

"Arsene is, without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers and I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man."

From 1997 to 2004, the two clubs traded titles exclusively, pushing each other to undreamed levels of quality and success. Pre-Wenger, Arsenal were known for pragmatic, cautious football, while United had gone 26 years without a title until Ferguson dispelled the hoodoo in 1993. 
But when the two managers started to battle each other, the style and spirit of their football ramped up to stratospheric levels. The result? Arguably the most concentrated period of intense rivalry that English football has witnessed… 
The Reds won the Premier League title for a fourth time in 1996/97 at a relative canter, finishing seven points clear of Arsenal, who ended up being pipped to the runners-up spot by Newcastle on goal difference. 
But there were rapid signs of progress at Highbury, with Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp forming a potent partnership up front, and Patrick Vieira’s gangly, domineering figure emerging to give the Gunners power and panache in midfield. United escaped north London with a 2-1 victory in February ’97, but only just. Wright clashed aggressively with Peter Schmeichel – setting the tone for what would be years of enmity. 
Wenger’s team soared to the title the following season, after a 10-game winning run that included a narrow 1-0 victory at Old Trafford courtesy of Marc Overmars’s clinical finish. Arsenal also triumphed in a classic contest at Highbury where United battled back from 2-0 down, only to lose late on thanks to David Platt’s header.
The Gunners actually won the Double in 1997/98 but the response from Manchester was, of course, emphatic. The Reds' historic Treble was achieved 12 months later, but could it have occurred without Arsenal?
The two teams twice fought out draws in the league, which was eventually won by United on the final day with a victory over the north Londoners' local rivals Tottenham 2-1, but it was in the FA Cup where Arsene and Sir Alex's sides illustrated just how well they were matched. Ryan Giggs produced one of the great goals to decide an epic semi-final tie and, after that replay at Villa Park, the Reds surely believed that any mountain could be conquered - including Newcastle at Wembley, and Bayern Munich at Camp Nou in the Champions League final.

Giggsy's wonder goal against ArsenalVideo

United retained the title twice more in 2000 and 2001, and racked up a remarkable 6-1 home win against Arsenal in February of the latter year, but Wenger’s next great team was sprouting. Another cataclysmic victory at Old Trafford – this time thanks to Sylvain Wiltord – sealed the 2001/02 title for the Gunners, just days after they’d clinched the FA Cup by beating Chelsea in Cardiff. 
The Reds bounced back again the following season to win the league after another dogged tussle, claiming a pugnacious 2-0 win at Old Trafford in December 2002 thanks to goals from Juan Sebastian Veron and Paul Scholes, and nabbing a 2-2 draw in London the following April. Giggs’ second-half equaliser maintained the Reds’ three-point advantage in the championship race, and the sight of Alex Ferguson striding across the Highbury turf to applaud the away fans at full-time emphasised that, psychologically, United were in the ascendancy.
Once more the teams had spurred each other on, and that pattern continued in 2003/04, a season in which Arsenal reclaimed the title and completed their entire league campaign without losing. United did, however, strike a blow by edging a fiery FA Cup semi-final 1-0 at Villa Park, thanks to some stout defending and a powerful Paul Scholes snap-shot. The Reds had lost the title, but revealed that the Gunners could be beaten. It was a lesson that echoed into the following season. Wenger’s men headed to Old Trafford in October 2004 hoping to extend their unbeaten league run to 50 games, but had their wings clipped by Ruud van Nistelrooy’s cathartic penalty and a late Wayne Rooney tap-in. The return game at Highbury was almost as dramatic, beginning with a flare-up between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira in the tunnel, and being decided by a brace from Cristiano Ronaldo, a deflected shot by Giggs and a delightful chip from John O’Shea.
Arsenal gained revenge in the 2005 FA Cup final – a match which United dominated but lost on penalties – but the teams’ private era of Premier League dominance was over, as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea swept to the title.
Gary Neville says

"The biggest compliment is that Arsenal played a level and quality of football that made us change the way we played against them. And we didn't change for too many."


Arsenal would not finish in one of the top two positions again until 2015/16, as Chelsea and then later, Manchester City, replaced the Gunners as the team regularly vying with United for the title. There were still classic encounters, including a Champions League semi-final in 2009, which Sir Alex's men won 4-1, with O’Shea again punishing Arsenal in the first leg at Old Trafford, before Ronaldo turned on the afterburners in the second leg in London. Wenger’s side would record the odd victory over United, but the Reds retained the upper hand for the majority of the time – something underlined by a remarkable 8-2 trouncing in 2011 – as Arsenal struggled to recapture the form of their title-winning years.

Classic match: United 6 Arsenal 1 Video

Sir Alex’s retirement created an opening for the other top sides in the league, but Arsenal and Wenger were still searching for consistency, despite an excellent record in the FA Cup. The Frenchman's last win at Old Trafford to date came in that very competition, back in 2015, as former United man Danny Welbeck gave the Gunners a 2-1 win over Louis van Gaal’s team, in a match that saw Angel Di Maria red carded. Matches between the two clubs still regularly enthralled – as anyone that witnessed United’s thrilling 3-1 win at the Emirates last December will testify – but the intensity of the late 90s and early 2000s was missing, with titles and honours rarely on the line.
With Wenger’s departure from the Emirates imminent, the golden age of a great rivalry seems even further away. But a new era begins next season, and if modern football’s history makes anything clear, it’s that Manchester United and Arsenal are rarely away from the country’s top honours for long…   

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