As Manchester United prepare to host Arsenal on Saturday, we take a look back at English football's finest fixture, giving our top 5 clashes between the two clubs of all-time.
It's usually said that Manchester United vs. Liverpool is English football's closest equivalent to Barcelona-Real Madrid, Celtic-Rangers, Boca Juniors-River Plate, and all the other great rivalries around the world, but in terms of pure spectacle, that's a load of hooey. No fixture in English football has turned out more great games than United-Arsenal.
United's team and identity of the 70s and 80s was one of impotent rage, enduring their long run without a First Division title, but enjoying no less than five FA Cup finals, including a 1977 victory to deny Liverpool a treble, enjoying the second part of that victory twenty-two years later. This was one of their two failures. In those two decades, Arsenal too would underachieve, winning two FA Cups and two league titles, both at either end of the twenty years, as both teams suffered under Liverpool's dominance.
The manner of the game summed Dave Sexton's team up - they were United but not United, and for the first 85 minutes, the game was unremarkable, Arsenal the comfortably superior side and earning a 2-0 half-time lead through Brian Talbot and Frank Stapleton, with United having failed to turn up. But this is remembered as a classic, and it has gone down as such thanks to what happened in the space of three minutes.
On the first of those, with the clock reading 86, United's Steve Coppell (the Antonio Valencia of his day - ask your dad) swept in a delivery which somehow eluded everybody but found Joe Jordan ready to stab it back into the morass of bodies around the penalty spot for Gordon McQueen - how few footballers look like middle-aged Glaswegian mothers nowadays - to give United a sliver of hope.
Immediately afterwards, as United attacked, a poor ball from Graham Rix, vastly overestimating the touch of his teammates by delivering a short pass at a thousand miles an hour, allowed Coppell to once again be the provider, chipping a ball forward for Sammy McIlroy, whose feints left Sammy Nelson and Willie Young in a crumpled heap before slotting past Pat Jennings to complete a remarkable comeback. After all, Manchester United don't score two goals in the space of two minutes in a final without going on to win.
Unless of course, it's not your era. For United, it wasn't - and immediately from kickoff, Arsenal took advantage of their poor concentration as Liam Brady, the game's standout performer, was allowed to work his way down the left flank to deliver a perfect cross for Alan Sunderland to make the comeback futile. For United fans, the era is still remembered with warmth, perceived as one of heroic but doomed struggle. A nice narrative, but it didn't make the defeat any less bitter in '79.
For all the talk of United's fans being southern-based, it certainly doesn't seem to manifest itself very visibly when you're in England's capital. It's a rare London pub indeed that, when ducked in to catch a United game, a Red doesn't find himself to be a pariah among the other patrons. Perhaps it's just bad luck to walk into a place with such an unusually high number of Stoke fans - and all with such thick cockney accents - but the more likely reason is that nobody likes Manchester United. Yet as much as you may think that's true now, it's worth remembering that it used to be far worse.
In 2002, United were utterly despised in England at the time. "Stand up if you hate Man U" was an oft-heard chant at England matches, right up there with the other popular ditties about pot-bellied taxi drivers from Colchester not being prepared to give up their lifelong struggle against Irish Republicanism, and speaking fondly of their Pakistani brothers over their Turkish cousins. Both of which explain much of the venom that began to flow in the other direction. It was also an era in which United were on the verge of a record-breaking fourth title, the last two of which had been comfortable processions, by 18 and then 10 points.
Four-in-a-row, however, seems to be one of the invisible barriers that take place in football, the gods preventing things from becoming too tedious. They exist across the spectrum - no club has ever managed to defend the Champions League, despite Barcelona's comfortable superiority. The European Cup Winners' Cup had a similar hoodoo, with Arsenal and Everton being denied successful defences in extremely unlikely scenarios. English football is unique in its solution: when a club begins to be too successful, the gods land them with a calamitous madman to play in goal. The rule that gave us Bruce Grobbelaar would give us Fabian Barthez.
Of course, it wasn't entirely Barthez's fault - although he could've done better than palm the ball out into the path of Wiltord - but this was a comfortable victory for Arsenal, against a United side whose relentless attacking, hustling, and bustling finally ran out of steam after four long years. A tame surrender gave Arsenal a 1-0 win to secure the title, denying United four-in-a-row, on their own ground. Worst of all, there could be no complaints. The knowledge that it would kick off the start of a renewed Arsenal, later to go on to complete an outstanding achievement in going a season unbeaten, was thankfully not known at the time, but in hindsight, few defeats can have had such resonance and significance.
And the final note of irony: United's meek performance was partly down to their defeat in the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen. A side that went on to be nicknamed 'Bayer Neverkusen' for their remarkable treble failure, losing the Champions League Final, German Cup Final, and losing the Bundesliga title on the last day. One of their last acts was to finish off the original treble winners, and to finally end their era of dominance. Now that's the football gods just taking the piss.
3. Arsenal 4-5 Manchester United, Football League Division One, Highbury, 1 February 1958
All of the matches on this list represent, in some way, a dying or fading of the light, but none of them have the significance of this, the final game the Busby Babes played in England. A game of remarkable end-to-end attacking saw United prevail thanks to the brilliance of Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards, and co. Fittingly, it's how they should be remembered.
The game started with Charlton and Edwards firing United into the lead with two screamers, before Tommy Taylor put them three up before half-time. In shadows of the future determination of Arsenal to keep up, they incredibly came back to equalise within just three minutes, an incredible triple-whammy of future United player David Herd before two goals from Jimmy Bloomfield levelled the scores.
United regrouped, with Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor restoring their advantage, but Arsenal looked set to roar back again, with Derek Tapscott setting up a nervous finale which Vic Groves failed to capitalise on, being denied by United keeper Harry Gregg to give United a remarkable victory.
Two of United's goalscorers would be dead after the Munich disaster occurred just five days later, Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards being claimed in the crash. The other two, Charlton and Viollet, would survive, with the latter going on to score a record haul of goals the next season and Charlton going on to lift the European Cup ten years later.
In recent years, the Premier League title has invariably been won by one unstoppable football machine strolling to victory past incompetent rivals (Chelsea 2005, 2006) or given to the team who was least prone to self-sabotage (Manchester United 2009, Manchester City 2012.) In the early 2000s, the heyday of the Arsenal-United dominance, both teams more commonly pounded the turf with relentless determination from the beginning, crushing lesser teams underfoot and not stopping until May. When two good teams come together, it's frequently a tight, tense affair, but when two great teams come together, who turn up at every game both expecting and demanding victory, it rarely disappoints. In 2005, that era came to an end with the rise of Chelsea under Mourinho, but this was a glorious swansong.
Arsenal were the defending champions, and earlier in the season had their long unbeaten run brought to an end under highly-dubious circumstances by a 2-0 Manchester United victory at Old Trafford. The penalty that brought the opening goal was likely a dive by Rooney, and with years of hostility boiling over again, combined with the frustration of Chelsea overtaking both sides, the return clash at Highbury saw both sides immediately abandon notions of discipline, caution, or mercy to go hell-for-leather and attempt to destroy the other team, both in a football and a physical sense.
The match is probably most famous for Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira's tunnel bust-up, with Keane warning "I'll see you out there" before kick-off, and both men did what captains do best - set an example - as a match of unbelievable aggression erupted on the pitch. In a match played at incredible speed, Arsenal's physical power in midfield - and how strange it sounds to hear that now - appeared to give them the edge, but both times they took the lead, United pegged them back, once through a deflected Giggs effort, and again through a Ronaldo finish between the legs of Almunia.
As the little discipline Arsenal had remaining abandoned them completely, United's counter-attacking saw Ronaldo give them the lead before it all ended, as perhaps all football matches should, with an insouciant chip from John O'Shea. A calming, delicate touch to end a match of considerable sound and fury, and fittingly, giving a carthorse the last word to a farewell performance from two of English football's greatest ever teams. O'Shea was at the level United and Arsenal would be for the ensuing period - it's incredible to think that United were in the midst of a decline, while Arsenal had just begun theirs. United would come back with another great team, Arsenal still haven't, but games of this intensity are largely consigned to the dustbin of history. With two great teams, there's always hope, but you won't find that in England these days.
If this were a list of the top five football matches of any era, any competition, and any country, this would still be a contender for top spot.
When people point out that football is a low-scoring sport, they fail to understand that this is its whole advantage - it's that one euphoric instance that might happen at any moment, forever on the horizon, which you don't get in, say, Cricket. It also means that the margins for error are often phenomenally slim, and as any United fan looking back over his Treble Winners VHS will know, that one year that stands out as the finest achievement in English club football frequently rested on the most slender twists of fate. It was a great United side, one that should have one more, and almost certainly would have had it not been formed at the end of an era of aggressive, direct football based on mobility and tempo rather than possession or solidity. The painful 4-5-1 reformation was just over the horizon, and the old world was finished by Ferguson himself, because as far as 4-4-2 could go, United perfected it.
This was their masterclass, against a team that had also achieved greatness with the same style, and also displayed the trademark mentality that helped them escape from any situation, no matter how bleak. There were many times when the jig could've been up on United's triumph, but it was during this game when they found themselves staring down the deepest and darkest barrel. That whole season is still nerve-wracking to watch even now, and none moreso than this game. A rare occasion in which United's passing had failed to click saw their fortunate early goal cancelled out, and then Roy Keane's sending off left them with the scores level, being outplayed, extra time with ten men looming and with a Dennis Bergkamp penalty about to make that academic in any case.
That was when the greatest twist of fate that season came, far more than that final in Barcelona, where Bayern had been remarkably fortunate to hold out so late and United looked nailed-on to win if it did go to extra time. This was certain doom, United existed on their mental reserves, which were looking almost depleted even before Bergkamp completed the formality of putting Arsenal in the lead. We all know what happened - Schmeichel saved it, and United survived. It was still far from over - as escape acts go, it's the equivalent to managing to free yourself from being tied to a chair, but still being trapped in a burning castle in the Austrian alps in 1942, with plenty of Nazis running around shouting "Jawohl!" outside.
It was at that point that Ryan Giggs, one of the biggest culprits in United's poor passing thus far, decided to take matters into his own hands, resolving to "just have a run with it" the next time he received the ball. He got it sooner than he thought. The second twist of fate came with a Patrick Vieira pass which the carpet-chested one greedily hoovered up. Looking back, it's utterly baffling what Vieira was doing, or who he thought he was passing to, but it seemed insignificant.
Given an inch, however, Giggs took a mile, scampering towards an astonished Arsenal backline. One of the all-time great defences, Keown & co had nonetheless barely had to deal with a direct run all game, and were spooked when it finally did happen, giving in to panic and confusion as they stuck out ineffective legs to try and stop the run. That left a narrow angle for the finish, well-covered by David Seaman, to which the only answer was a hit-and-hope. Giggs put his head down, lashed it with all his might, and then the final moment of destiny, the ball ending up in the only trajectory between Seaman and bar.
Arsenal were defeated, the treble was preserved, and United gave themselves the conviction that they could survive any situation, no matter how desperate. A mentality that came to be useful a week later, when they found themselves 2-0 down to Juventus. But you know how that one ended.