In modern football, the game’s best managerial rivalry exists between Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho and there is a case for it as the two have competed against each other for nearly a decade whilst being successful. The emergence of Jürgen Klopp in recent years has contributed to added entertainment, pitting his heavy metal Liverpool and Guardiola’s slick Manchester City, and it looks as though the two will fight for years to come, having started off their story in Germany with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively.
These elite managers have their stories, their styles and their personalities, making them some of the game’s most revered figures whilst simultaneously leaving a mark wherever they have managed. However, when it comes solely to England and English football, it seems unlikely that they will eclipse the glory and grit left behind by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, whose rivalry at its peak was exhilarating to say the least.
These elite managers have their stories, their styles, and their personalities, making them some of the game’s most revered figures whilst simultaneously leaving a mark wherever they have managed. However, when it comes solely to England and English football, it seems unlikely that they will eclipse the glory and grit left behind by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, whose rivalry at its peak was exhilarating, to say the least.
Arsène Wenger and Arsenal’s decline over the last decade and his last years in North London should not eclipse the fact that, at his best, his side were the greatest contenders to Manchester United, and with a little assistance from Roman Abramovich and Chelsea, stopped Sir Alex Ferguson from creating a dynasty in England in the early 2000s.
Since calling it a day, Ferguson has been full of praise for the way Arsène Wenger has dealt with the often-unfair criticism he received in his final years, and that would have been an unimaginable act at the height of their rivalry. They’ve both grown into pillars for their respective football clubs, but when they were at their best, it was hard to comprehend a more fearsome, tactical, and often personal managerial rivalry.
It all kicked off in 1996, when a relatively unknown quantity, Arsène Wenger, arrived from Japan and was tasked with taking Arsenal away from the abyss and back to their glory days. A club spoiled by debt and facing the immense possibility of entering administration while also going away from their roots and hosting a fading academy system, the unpopular Arsène Wenger was given a tremendous task.
Sir Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, was at the top of his game having been in the north-west for nearly a decade and dominated the English football scene for about half of it. At that point, it seemed unimaginable that the two would become such fierce competitors and change the complexion of the Premier League for the indefinite future.
Arsène Wenger, the man who oversaw the underdog, dealt the first jab at Sir Alex Ferguson in April 1997 after he believed that the scheduling of the fixtures in the league were unfair to the rest of the sides and mostly favoured the Red Devils. Ferguson’s response was a cold return that dismissed his counter-part and highlighted his lack of reputation in top-level football, saying “He’s a novice – he should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”
That trade would be the commencement of a managerial rivalry that would be quite personal at times, and following this, it would carry on from the press conference room to the football pitch, as the two would consistently fight each other for top honours. United would win the league that season, but the following year was when Wenger hit back.
Early on in their rivalry, it would be Wenger’s tactical innovativeness and unique fitness regimes that would get him one over his rivals, including Ferguson, and that gave them an advantage in the 1997-98 season, as Arsenal would assert their dominance in Wenger’s first full season. Graced with a strong core of David Seaman, Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal would overcome their 11-point deficit to Manchester United and pip them to the title by a solitary point.
What made this sweeter was that the catalyst to Arsenal’s turnaround was a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, with Marc Overmars scoring a late goal to give Arsenal the edge. They would also go on to win the FA Cup by beating Newcastle United in the final at Wembley as Arsène Wenger would well and truly confirm his arrival into English football.
“They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages? I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.” – Sir Alex Ferguson, seemingly unimpressed by Arsène Wenger’s intellect.
1999 to 2002 was the peak of the ferocity between the two managers and their teams. The year before the millennium is always remembered for that famous FA Cup semi-final replay which was settled by Ryan Giggs’ wonderful solo goal, a pivotal moment as Manchester United would go on to seal the treble, but the action in the league wasn’t too far away from enthralling.
Both sides were inconsistent at the start of the season, but it was United who would win the title by a solitary point, having not lost a game from December 1998 onwards. The treble success gave Ferguson the edge in this blossoming rivalry, as Manchester United were now recognised as the international pinnacle in football.
Despite the two managers’ stringent financial conditions, they made significant progress to their teams by relying on younger, raw talent, albeit in two different ways. Ferguson put his faith on the traditions that made Manchester United historical giants – their youth teams that were first made famous by the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club in the 1930s, strengthened under the tutelage of Sir Matt Busby and continued by Ferguson’s predecessors.
The Unique Selling Point when the Scotsman was able to describe his success was the rise of the Class of ’92, which included superstars like David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes and were supported by low-cost external purchases such as Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel, amongst others. Built from within, he was able to stabilise the club and bring success on the pitch in the best way possible.
Arsène Wenger, meanwhile, incredibly took the club away from their financial fears and converted them to title challengers in a short period of time. Wenger trusted foreign imports, mostly players who were brimming with potential, but failed to cut it at the highest level while at the same time not being afforded enough chances.
Thierry Henry is a prime example of Wenger’s strategy, as his faith as well as willingness to take the risk and convert him into a forward from a winger was an inspired decision. Other such players were Patrick Vieira, who was struggling at AC Milan and Dennis Bergkamp, the Dutch legend who grew under Wenger after stagnating at Inter Milan. In addition to that, the likes of Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljungberg were purchased on the cheap from their local clubs and could express themselves along with the experience of Tony Adams and David Seaman.
Manchester United’s dominance continued in the following year, and they were at their sparkling best in the 1999-00 season. Once again ending the season with just three defeats, they would seal the title with an 18-point margin. As they were now firmly established as England’s immovable force, it was a second successive year that Ferguson would top Wenger, and it wouldn’t get any better in the following campaign.
In a match at Old Trafford in February 2001, United would trounce a sorry Arsenal side 6-1, as the exceptional Dwight Yorke bagged a hat-trick. The result confirmed who was the boss in the region, and it would confirm who had the upper hand in the managerial battle. After initially struggling when coming up against the Frenchman, Ferguson learned what Wenger was up to, and for the three years following their 1998 title failure, he would condemn him to successive years of runner-up finishes.
However, there was light for Wenger and with a few tactical tweaks, he would create a monstrous force at Highbury that gave him a reputation which he is still very famous for. The 2001-02 season is one of the best in Premier League history and that is largely down to Arsenal’s free-flowing, almost-unstoppable attacking football. They were led by the forward pairing of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, who were examples of Wenger’s tactical nous.
The team was built to give the two free space up top, and the goals just followed. Arsenal picked up points at the toughest places, scored some delicious goals including Bergkamp’s sumptuous flick and finish away at Newcastle United and Robert Pires’ chip over the imposing Peter Schmeichel, who was now at Aston Villa. They finished the season unbeaten away from home and were ten points ahead of Manchester United, who could only finish behind Liverpool in third – their lowest position in the Premier League era. It was sweet, sweet revenge for Arsène Wenger
“He never comes for a drink with the opposing manager after matches. He’s the only manager in the Premiership not to do so. It is a tradition here. It would be good for him to accept the tradition.” – Sir Alex Ferguson on Arsène Wenger’s refusal to visit the opposing manager after matches.
The war of words didn’t stop though, which they hadn’t since the two first crossed paths. Arsenal sealed that season’s title with a narrow 1-0 win at Old Trafford and after the game, an almost-bitter Sir Alex Ferguson declared that his United were still the best team in England to which Wenger replied: “Everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home.” Ferguson took this quite personally, but whether Wenger meant it that way, it was still a cold, direct reply that hints at the volatility of their rivalry.
The sweetness of success was short-lived for Wenger, as a Ruud van Nistelrooy-inspired Manchester United would reclaim the title back in 2002-03, but the two teams displayed their animosity once again. In a crucial 2-2 draw at the end of the season, Sol Campbell showed off his flair by launching a vile elbow on Ole Gunnar Solskjær and was subsequently sent off. There was also controversy surrounding Thierry Henry’s goal, which was seemingly scored from an offside position.
And if that was bad, it was about to get brutal in the following season. Labelled as the ‘Battle of Old Trafford’, this match from September 2003 showed the competitiveness, albeit in a negative manner from both managers and their players. In a game that controversially finished 0-0, Arsenal lacked their usual attacking conviction, creating their best chance at the death, however, it was the fracas that took away all the headlines. A total of 31 fouls resulted in eight yellows and a sending off for Patrick Vieira, a missed late penalty by Ruud van Nistelrooy that triggered an aggressive and frightening reaction from Martin Keown and constant scuffles between both sets of players.
Players from both sides were handed hefty fines, with Arsenal earning a record £175,000 fine for failing to control themselves. One of the most iconic games in Premier League history isn’t remembered for the magnificence its players could’ve provided, but rather the intensity that was also inspired by the animosity between their two bosses.
The Gunners would amazingly go unbeaten for the rest of the campaign, becoming the first club since Preston North End in 1888-89 to finish a season undefeated. In what was Arsène Wenger’s defining achievement as the manager of the North Londoners, it was here that he started gaining greater control of the club’s activities on and off the pitch. Arsenal would embark on a 49-game unbeaten streak, and that would only end, ironically, at Old Trafford, in another heated game against Manchester United.
Now dubbed as the ‘Battle of the Buffet’, United won this match through a Van Nistelrooy penalty, which was given to them after Wayne Rooney had gone to ground softly. Rooney would also seal the points with the second goal late in the game.
Van Nistelrooy was lucky to be on the pitch after his dangerous challenge on Ashley Cole that was worthy of a sending-off, while Rio Ferdinand, United’s marauding centre-half, shared the same incentive as his early lunge was passed on without even a booking. In an encounter of strange decisions by referee Mike Riley, combustibility was well on display, and that would only carry on post-match. There were no customary shirt swaps after the final whistle, with many donning the Arsenal colours incensed by the decisions throughout the afternoon.
Wenger and Ferguson got themselves involved after the former confronted Van Nistelrooy over his tackle on Cole, but Ferguson intervened in defence of his players, and the arguments carried on into the tunnel, where, hysterically, a slice of pizza was thrown at the Manchester United boss by a young, enraged Cesc Fàbregas.
Clashes between the two were frequent, but this was on another level of bizarre, as things got physical between the managers, and was the epitome of the rivalry. It was after this, however, that things seemed to cool down, with London’s blue club, Chelsea, and their manager, José Mourinho, taking over.
“Ferguson does what he wants and you [the press] are all down at his feet. He doesn’t interest me and doesn’t matter to me at all. I will never answer to any provocation from him anymore. He has lost all sense of reality. He is going out looking for a confrontation, then asking the person he is confronting to apologise.” – Arsène Wenger on Sir Alex Ferguson’s constant bickering about ‘Pizzagate’
Arsenal would become less and less competitive following their incredible feat of going unbeaten throughout a season, and while this was a dry spell for the Red Devils too, they would recover better to reclaim the Premier League in 2007. Mismanagement in the Gunners’ boardroom started becoming the norm, as they prioritised making the newly-built Emirates Stadium a fortress ahead of developing on Wenger’s success over the last decade.
They reached the Champions League final in 2006, but that was the last time they were able to put a reasonable smile on their fans’ faces, for it was a torrid spell. Meanwhile, United were unstoppable and were able to replicate the free-flowing attacking football that made their rivals so popular a few years ago, except this time, that freedom was expressed by an emerging Cristiano Ronaldo and a maturing Wayne Rooney.
Successive titles between 2007 and 2009, the second time in the Premier League era that they had won three consecutive league honours were also met with two Champions League Finals – one of which they won in Moscow against Chelsea, and the other, they lost to Pep Guardiola’s exceptional Barcelona.
Sir Alex Ferguson was at his best and was still able to make full use of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, two of his greatest successes at the club, and combine them with the increasing experience of Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić and Gary Neville. The supporting cast was equally as competent, as the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez amongst others made for an all-star squad.
Things were almost contrary in North London, as Wenger did just enough to keep his team in the title races, but pose no real threat. Record goalscorer Thierry Henry departed for Barcelona and was part of the team that won the Champions League in 2009, while injuries didn’t allow Robin van Persie to display his full potential.
Now with even more restrained financial conditions following the building of the brand new Emirates Stadium, Wenger was at risk of tarnishing his legacy, and very often, he displayed signs where he was failing to adapt tactically. In addition to that, there was another monster arising in the form of Manchester City, who were now given the backing of the Emirs from Abu Dhabi, while Arsenal’s own local rivals, Tottenham Hotspur were on the rise themselves after some decent decision-making and management by Harry Redknapp.
Clashes between the two were now less competitive, with Ferguson now recognizing that Arsenal were no longer a top-level contender and were mostly intent on keeping themselves competitive at best amongst the higher order of English football. After quite comfortably winning the title in once again in 2011, the gulf in class between the two clubs were evident in the first encounter of the 2011/12 season, where Arsenal, fielding an inexperienced, inadequate and incompetent starting eleven, were smashed at Old Trafford by eight goals to two.
What was at one point an encounter to keep fans at the edge of their seats, was now a basic training ground match, and the pinball football displayed by United forced Arsenal to splash the cash on building a side worthy of bringing Champions League football at least.
Wenger never managed to regain the upper hand, and his team were still lacking behind. Despite cruelly losing the title to Manchester City on the final day of that season, Ferguson would retain it in the following campaign in convincing fashion and call it a day to put an end to an illustrious career and a famous rivalry. The twilight years of the competition between the two often eclipse what it was when at its peak.
Tactically, the two were adventurous at times, with Ferguson’s traditional 4-4-2 getting the better of most in England and Europe, while Wenger has evolved away from the history that had earned him a fine reputation and showed his willingness to adapt with his decision to field a 3-4-3 over the course of his last few months at Arsenal. The Scotsman has the greater record when it comes to head-to-head between the two, but when they squared off, entertainment was a guarantee.
They’ll go down as two of the best in the game, two of the best to grace English football, and the best to grace their respective football clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy and impact can be recognised by the failure of his successors, and the control he had over Manchester United on and off the pitch was the foundation of his success.
Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, remained a figurehead despite calls for him to leave the club. He had been influential in carrying the club from the transition of success to stability following their move to the Emirates Stadium, and, with all due respect, was allowed to leave at his will. The two are powerhouses, the two command respect and they are indeed two of the finest ever.
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