In recent years, both Manchester United and Arsenal have suffered from a lack of trophies. Arsenal’s last trophy came in 2020 when it won the FA Cup while United have not won any trophy since 2017, the last being the Europa League triumph under then manager Jose Mourinho.
Despite the dearth of trophies, the intensity of the Manchester United vs Arsenal fixture has not gone down and it still remains one of the biggest fixtures on the Premier League calendar. In the early 2000s, during the Alex Ferguson vs Arsene Wenger era, the United-Arsenal rivalry was at its peak. The fixture has given fans infamous moments, debates and controversies, some of which are still talked about.
Following are five such talking points as the eighth-placed Man United plays table-topper Arsenal on Sunday.
Arsenal wins the league at Old Trafford
The 2001-02 season was an important season for Arsenal not only because it won the league but for the statement Arsene Wenger and his players made. The Gunner broke three seasons of dominance with the league win. To have any chance of retaining its league title, Manchester United had to beat Arsenal at Old Trafford in the penultimate match of the season. The stakes were high but Arsenal beat United courtesy of a Sylvian Wiltord winner and sealed the Premier League title. This was Wenger’s second Premier League title after the 1997-98 season. The Gunners also won the FA Cup that season. Arsene Wenger won the ‘Manager of the Season’ award and Thierry Henry finished as the top league scorer with 24 goals.
The Keane-Vieira spat in the Highbury Tunnel
It is impossible to leave out Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira if one is talking about the intense rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal. These two players have had their fair share of clashes on the pitch but their most talked about clash came off the pitch. In 2005, Arsenal was scheduled to play Manchester United at Highbury, the Gunners’ home ground before they shifted to the Emirates Stadium. The players were standing in the tunnel before coming out on the pitch. There was a commotion and when the cameras focused on it, United captain Keane was having a go at Vieira. Referee Graham Poll eventually intervened. Later, it was known that Vieira was bullying Gary Neville and when Keane spoke up, Vieira squirted his water bottle towards Keane and in the words of Neville, “All hell broke loose.” Keane was heard saying, “I’ll see you out there” and it was the United captain who had the last laugh after United beat Arsenal 4-2. Post-match, Keane told the media, “They think Gary Neville is an easy target but I wasn’t having it.”
The Pizzagate Incident
That Manchester United vs Arsenal game in 2004 was a historic day in many senses. Not only did United end Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run, but Sir Alex Ferguson got acquainted with a slice of pizza and not in a good way. That match would see United break Arsenal’s unbeaten run but it was also a day of redemption and revenge for Ruud Van Nistelrooy as he made up for his missed penalty 13 months ago by converting his spot kick. Rooney scored the second and the 2-0 win ended Arsenal’s run. With Arsenal players not happy with the penalty being given, post-match scenes were bound to get heated up and they did. Post-match it was reported that Arsene Wenger was giving stick to Van Nistelrooy and the Dutchman informed his manager. Ferguson, being the protective manager that he was, went straight up to Wenger and asked to “leave his players alone.” Amidst the commotion, suddenly a slice of pizza came flying and hit Ferguson in the face and it was all over his suit. The incident also came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Buffet.’ Ferguson later said in his autobiography, “Anyway, the next thing I knew I had pizza all over me…They say it was Cesc Fabregas who threw the pizza at me but to this day, I have no idea who the culprit was.” Later, in 2017, Fabregas confirmed that he was the one who threw pizza at the United boss.
Van Nistelrooy’s penalty miss
Why was Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s successful penalty on the day of the Pizzagate Scandal so important? To know this we need to go back 13 months in 2003. It was a tense match, like any other Manchester United vs Arsenal match in the early 2000s. Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira was already on a yellow and Van Nistelrooy saw a perfect opportunity to exaggerate a clash between the two. This resulted in Vieira being sent off, a decision met by vociferous protests from the Arsenal players. The match ended 0-0 but not before Van Nistelrooy missed a penalty in the 93rd minute. As soon as the final whistle was blown, Van Nistelrooy was surrounded by five to six yellow Arsenal shirts with defender Martin Keown and Lauren leading the charge. Lauren caught Nistelrooy on the back while Keown jumped in front of Van Nistelrooy and a flailing arm caught the Dutch striker. The Football Association (FA) later fined Arsenal £175,000 and suspended Keown, Lauren, Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour for a collective nine games.
Wenger sent off to the stands
In 2009, when Arsenal played Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Premier League, Gunners manager Arsene Wenger was banished to the stands by the referee for kicking a water bottle out of frustration as he saw his team losing the match despite making the better start. Andre Arshavin had given a lead to Arsenal but a Wayne Rooney strike and an Abou Diaby own goal brought United back into the match. Wenger had to endure the banter of the Man United faithful who were enjoying their team winning. However, Wenger could have had the final laugh after Robin Van Persie struck a stoppage-time equaliser but it was ruled out for offside. Overall, a frustrating day for Wenger but his pose of standing between a sea of Man United supporters with his arms out wide remains iconic to this day.