How Arsenal versus Manchester United lost an edge

There was a time when Arsenal hosting Manchester United or vice versa in May would be a title shootout, winner takes all and neither team would spare any prisoners.

In 2002, almost 17 years to the day the two will face off this weekend, the Gunners travelled to Old Trafford looking to seal a second league and FA Cup double in four years, it was a fierce encounter in which United had four players booked and Arsenal had to fight their way to the title.

Great rivalries make for a great rivalry

Now, over a decade and a half later, even with Arsene Wenger’s biggest managerial adversary in Jose Mourinho in the opposite corner, the once game of the 2000s barely registers and is only a Sky Sports Super Sunday on past value.

There’s no more Patrick Vieira versus Roy Keane, there’s no more pushing Ruud Van Nistelrooy round the pitch because the Dutchman missed a last minute penalty and there certainly wont be a Pizza thrown in the tunnel when Sunday’s match ends.

In fairness, it’s hard to constantly stoke the fires for non-regional derbies, games between Newcastle United and Manchester United certainly don’t have as much meaning as they did 20 years ago, to have the uber competitive non-regional rivalry you’re very reliant on having two ultra successful teams.

Of course for Arsenal and United fans, the game still has that meaning, they’ll be a lot of social media spoils for the winners but in reality, a game where either victor may still finish outside outside of the top four spots is hardly something to get too excited about, certainly both have bigger fish to fry away from the league scene.

But how did a game that had so much meaning suddenly become a potential battle for fifth place, it’s arguably traceable back to 2005, just months after the FA Cup final.

For seven years, Arsenal and Manchester United had monopolised English football, although Liverpool and Leeds United had their moments, there was nothing like the Arsene Wenger/Sir Alex Ferguson rivalry.

The Frenchman had gotten under Ferguson’s skin in 1997 after comments about United’s fixture congestion and only irritated him more when he overturned a 13 point deficit at Christmas to win the league and cup double.

United hit back by pipping Arsenal to the league title by a point in 1999 and knocked them out of the FA Cup semi-finals and then added two more titles at a canter in 2000 and 2001.

It could have been there that the rivalry died, even though the Gunners secured three runners-up spots and had been to UEFA Cup and FA Cup finals, they looked a class below Fergie’s men in the league but the turnaround in 2002 re-fuelled the war.

No team has bragging rights now

From the latter part of 2001 to the FA Cup final in 2005, the two teams played out the best fixtures, every game was a heated battle, filled with superstars from Thierry Henry to Van Nistelrooy, from Robert Pires to Paul Scholes, from Freddie Ljungberg to David Beckham and so on.

In 2002, Arsenal sealed the double at Old Trafford, the following year the two played out an epic as United took the initiative with a 2-2 draw at Highbury and eventually won the title so the following year the Gunners responded by going the entire league season unbeaten, a run ended in an ill-tempered game at Old Trafford by United which ended with pizza allegedly thrown at Sir Alex in the tunnel.

It was four years of oneupmanship at it’s best but then the two main focal points were removed and with it, the thing that made it must see TV faded too.

Much has always been made of the Vieira/Keane rivalry in all those fixtures, the two battle hardened midfielders were never too far away from each other, whether it be clattering into tackles on the pitch or the Frenchman winding up the hot-headed Irishman in the tunnel with just a smile off it.

However, after winning Arsenal the FA Cup with his winning penalty kick in May 2005, Vieira was out the door at Arsenal, sold to Juventus and by November 2005, Keane having had one outburst too many about the current United squad was allowed to leave and join Glasgow Celtic on a free.

It was at that moment, the rivalry started to die.

Rivalry fades

The first game between the two would be the last to be played at the old Highbury, in the end it was a tepid affair, ending 0-0 leaving second place United 13 points behind leaders Chelsea and Arsenal in fifth another 11 points behind them.

It wasn’t just the removal of the Vieira/Keane aspect however that started to kill it, Arsenal’s team as a whole felt a shift around 2006 and the Emirates Stadium move that took them away from being United’s main competitors.

The best teams don't last forever, Ferguson’s greatest strength was that he could re-build a squad without losing much of the success, in most cases only adding more honours than before, whilst Wenger’s post-2006 re-build was much less fruitful.

The loss of Vieira would be the beginning of the end, next would be Piers and Dennis Bergkamp, then Henry, then Gilberto Silva and so on and instead of the big, intimidating forces that dominated the Highbury tunnel replacing them it was smaller, more ball playing, more youthful players.

It was evident when the unbeaten run was snapped in 2004 when Man United seemed to exclusively bully Jose Antonio Reyes, the forward had, had a steady beginning to life in North London but his physical ability was no where close to the giants he stood next to.

However, Reyes was just one player and ever since 2000, Arsenal had held a similar player in Pires, who although five inches bigger than the Spaniard was never one for the rough and tumble side of Premier League life, although could more than live with it after his first season.

But Reyes presence was more than indicative of the incoming change under Wenger, out with the physical monsters that had gone 17 months unbeaten and in with the Barcelona-esque tika-taka light of the early Emirates years.

With the loss of Vieira, Arsenal didn’t just lose a captain, a leader and above all one of the most domineering midfielders of any era, the team lost it’s bigger brother.

Vieira spent the pre-match amble before the January 2005 clash between the two standing up for Reyes and Pires who United had deliberately targeted at Old Trafford, essentially giving it the age old ‘pick on someone your own size’, much to the annoyance of Keane as the two almost came the blows in the Highbury tunnel.

Legendary captain Tony Adams always says that in any squad, you need “seven”, seven men that will go to battle with you, in losing Vieira and others, Arsenal lost their seven and their equal footing with Fergie’s Reds.

It still had it’s moments, the 2-2 played at the Emirates Stadium in November 2008 was still a thriller and one of the best games of any season but never again would these two play in a title shoot-out, there names were there but the fire was long gone.

By the time Arsenal moved to the new ground in 2006, United was exiting it’s brief transitional period to win three league titles in a row, whilst Arsenal were entering their era of coming close but no cigar.

Even the 2009 UEFA Champions League semi-finals between the two were an embarrassingly one-sided affair with United winning 4-1 on aggregate thanks to an eleven minute master-class in the second leg.

Come August 2011, the rivalry got plain embarrassing when an understrength Arsenal lost 8-2 at Old Trafford in the darkest day of Arsene Wenger’s reign as manager but already by then, the competition for the league was too far above Arsenal and Fergie knew it, no longer was Wenger his great adversary, no longer were the two at each other’s throats, instead there was a mutual respect and admiration, an almost friendship between the two.

Fergie’s 2013 retirement saw United’s drop off as well, ironically, the club’s have been on nearer equal footing for the last four years than they had since the Highbury days but neither are fighting for league titles anymore when it matters.

The fixture that was on everyone’s lips lost it’s edge the day Arsenal stopped being a credible rival for Manchester United and as the edge wore away, it just so happened that Manchester United lost their own title edge.

17 years ago this game was for the title, this Sunday, there are no titles at stake, there may not even be fourth place, this game is simply a distraction for both, for Mourinho it’s the irritating fixture before a tricky European semi-final for Arsenal it’s another week before the make or break cup final that could save their worst season in the last 22.