In October 2004, Arsenal were on an unbeaten run of 49 games and in excellent attacking form. The next game up was Manchester United at Old Trafford in what promised to be a classic game of football that would act as an advertisement for the quality of the Premier League.
What it became was a bad-tempered, low-quality encounter between a side that wanted to play stylish football and a physical, thuggish outfit that would try to win under any circumstances.
Manchester United were aided and abetted by Mike Riley who was one of Arsene Wenger’s least liked referees. Riley was responsible for rubber stamping Wayne Rooney’s shameful dive and subsequent penalty and for ignoring at least a dozen dubious tackles without issuing a yellow or red card.
He allowed United to mug Arsenal with brute force and without the fear of retribution in his 50th Premier League game and was probably the main reason Arsenal lost in such a tragic fashion.
After the game, Wenger went into meltdown mode when he said:
“We got the usual penalty when we come to Manchester United and they are in difficulty,”
The acidic nature of his words seeped into every available reporter’s ear:
“It happened last season and it’s happened again. We are extremely disappointed because we were the better team. Then, out of nowhere, Riley decided the game – like he can do at Manchester United.”
“To see how lightly a referee can give a penalty in a game of that importance is very difficult to take. We can master only our performance, not the referee’s, and the penalty was the turning point. Until then we had looked more like winning the game. So we feel we were robbed; the referee made the difference.”
Ferguson had issued orders before the game to get stuck into the Arsenal players and hit them hard and that’s exactly what occurred. Jose Antonio Reyes was one of the main victims with the brilliant little Spaniard being upended savagely every time he received the ball.
Rooney‘s dive was disgustingly blatant and resulted in Van Nistlerooy opening up the scoring. Rooney added a second to compound Arsenal’s misery, as he locked on to a quick pass in the area giving Manchester United a 2-0 win.
Wenger paid for his comments, around £15k, but United, their manager and it’s players weren’t even questioned for their approach to the game.
In reality, there was little honour or pride to be had by United’s performance. It was one of robbery and thuggery which undermined football and dismantled the prestige of English football in just 90 minutes.
It’s not the fact that Arsenal lost their unbeaten record, it was the way they lost it. They capitulated to United’s tactics whilst trying to play football when all they needed was to dig in and grind out a point from the inferior competition.
This Premier League game summed up the divide between the two sides of differing styles, mentalities and competitive spirit. Wenger wanted to win with pretty, quick-footed, artistic football. Ferguson wanted to win the battle with brute force, determination, grit, and physicality.
The basis for United’s success was to win by whatever means was necessary. They had great players think Ryan Giggs, Rudd Van Nistlerooy and David Beckham, but they also had the battlers and bruisers in the form of Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes.
After the match, both teams confronted each other and there was every reason to believe it was going to spill over on the way to the dressing rooms, such was the fury at the way this Manchester United vs Arsenal match panned out.
As the two passed down a narrow corridor only ten feet across, a scuffle broke out which required staff from both clubs to break up the fracas. This would later be referred to as “Battle of the buffet” with Emperor Ferguson struck in the face by a slice of complimentary pizza.
Cesc Fabregas, obviously upset by the result and the lack of toppings propelled the angry dough at the United boss, but that was as close as Arsenal had come to a meaningful attack that day.
This Manchester United performance acted as a blueprint of how to beat Arsenal employing physical force and intimidation. Arsenal were found wanting up against determined opposition, who on paper should have been beaten easily.
The sides dislike for each other grew all the time both managers were in place and it’s rather fitting to say that the passion for the Manchester United vs Arsenal fixture appeared to die with their departures.
The games between the two had become a compulsive viewing even for the impartial observer. A clash of ideologies between two of the biggest teams and biggest Managers in the domestic sport and although Wenger’s sides should have won more Premier League titles, they played a style of football that was irresistible. That can’t be said of all of Ferguson’s teams.