Sir Alex Ferguson versus Arsene Wenger: The rivalry of a generation

With Arsene Wenger announcing his decision to leave Arsenal at the end of this season, last weekend’s game between Manchester United and Arsenal saw Sir Alex Ferguson present Wenger with a parting gift, and the two seemed to be firm friends. However, the relationship was not always so amicable.

When Wenger was appointed Arsenal manager in 1996, he came as a relative unknown from Japanese side, Nagoya Grampus Eight. This came at a time when Sir Alex and United were dominating English football; that United side won four out of the first five Premier League titles on offer, as well as securing two FA cups in that time. Arsenal had provided a challenge prior to Wenger’s appointment when they’d been managed by George Graham.

However, Wenger came in after Bruce Rioch (Graham’s replacement) lasted only a season. Consequently, many would be forgiven for expecting Wenger to struggle to adapt to the English league. However, they couldn’t have been more wrong; in only his second season in England, Arsenal won the league and cup double. Sir Alex had found his first genuine enemy in the Premier League in terms of consistently competing for domestic trophies. This continued through to 2004, in which time Arsenal and United were the only sides to win the league.

Although United famously won the treble in the 1998/99 season and followed that up with two further league titles, the rivalry between the clubs and managers remained bitter and threatened to boil over.

Wenger used his experience at Monaco to add to the core of the Arsenal side which George Graham had built, bringing in the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, and Robert Pires from the French leagues to add creativity and flair to that Arsenal side. Wenger also completely transformed Graham’s side, changing the heavy drinking habits and focusing on players’ eating habits on an unprecedented scale. Though it was alien in the premier league, Arsenal reaped the rewards on the pitch.

The competition was something which threatened Sir Alex, who realised his fantastic footballing side would have to add something else to their game to challenge Wenger’s methods. This came in the form of a far more physical side of the game, which only exacerbated the rivalry further. It produced fantastic football spectacles on the pitch, with both playing free-flowing football, it made for games which went down in history. Perhaps the most memorable in the minds of many United fans is the FA Cup semi-final replay in the 1998/99 treble-winning season.

Peter Schmeichel saved Dennis Bergkamp’s penalty, taking the game to extra time. The game will forever be remembered for Ryan Giggs peeling away down the touchline after scoring the winner, hairy chest on full display.

The rivalry went on to produce other memorable games-Arsenal won the title at Old Trafford in the 2001-02 season, whilst the 0-0 at Old Trafford in the 2003/04 season was probably one of the most infamous scoreless draws in Premier League history because of Martin Keown’s reaction to Ruud Van Nistelrooy missing a penalty. The two managers’ reactions to the game demonstrate where their relationship was, as Ferguson said:

“They got away with murder…What the Arsenal players did was the worst I have witnessed in sport.”

Wenger’s response was equally explosive:

“Maybe it would be better if you have us put up against a wall and shot us all. I hope that he will calm down.”

However, arguably the turning point in the relationship was the game which ended Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run during the 2004/05 season, which also happened to be Jose Mourinho’s first season in England. United won the game 2-0 following a controversial penalty, which was converted by Van Nistelrooy, and a Wayne Rooney goal. Both teams kicked the living daylights out of each other that day, but the ‘Pizzagate’ incident in the tunnel after the game made it so memorable.

The dispute led to Sir Alex being hit by a slice of pizza, and it took the managerial rivalry to another level. Had Arsenal continued to be the same force as in their first eight seasons, the rift may have never been healed. As it was, their FA cup victory in the very same season proved to be their last major trophy until 2014, the season after Ferguson retired. Though Arsenal continued to be a constant in the top four in between these FA cup triumphs, Ferguson can justifiably say he had the better of the two of them overall, especially post-2005.

This led to the rivalry easing somewhat, though the nature of their relationship only really improved to the extent seen last weekend after the two shared a bottle of wine after United’s victory over Arsenal in the semi-final of the Champions League in 2009.

The pre-match scenes in the tunnel from last weekend also showed just how different the fixture is, with players embracing as Arsenal fielded a weakened side in preparation for their Europa League semi-final. Nonetheless, fans from both sides will look back fondly at the intense rivalry which shaped English football in the late 90s and early 2000s, as will Sir Alex and Wenger.

Written by Rob Potter

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