News of Arséne Wenger’s decision to leave Arsenal at the end of the season broke on Friday and it may not have come as a surprise to many, but Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to pay tribute to the Frenchman and make word of the rivalry, and eventual friendship that he and Arséne shared.
“I am really happy for Arsene Wenger,” he said. “I have great respect for him and for the job he has done at Arsenal.
“It is great testament to his talent, professionalism and determination that he has been able to dedicate 22 years of his life to a job that he loves. In an era where football managers sometimes only last one or two seasons, it shows what an achievement it is to serve that length of time at a club the size of Arsenal.
“I am pleased that he has announced he is leaving at this stage of the season, as he can now have the send-off that he truly deserves. He is, without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers and I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man.”
Arséne and Sir Alex are the two longest-serving managers in Premier League history and have therefore overseen more games than any other manager, many of which were against each other. It was a fierce and competitive rivalry – particularly in the earlier years, and as the Frenchman’s time at Arsenal is coming to an end it seems only right to look back at some of the history between these two great managers.
Wenger vs Ferguson Rivalry: The Timeline
1996 // New Kid on The Block
Wenger had just moved to Arsenal from Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight and many pundits had began to praise his intellectual approach to the game. Sir Alex Ferguson however, was less impressed. “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”.
The first punch is thrown.
1996 // First Blood
The first time these two managers would meet would be at Old Trafford in the 1996/97 season. Ferguson drew first blood in a 1-0 win thanks to a Woodburn own goal. United would then later win the reverse leg of this fixture at Highbury, a 2-1 win with goals from Cole and Solskjaer, and Sir Alex Ferguson went on to win the Premier League with Arséne’s Arsenal finishing 3rd.
1999 // Welsh Wizard
The FA Cup semi-final replay saw United beat Arsenal thanks to one of the greatest FA Cup goals of all-time scored by United’s very own Ryan Giggs – a dazzling individual goal which saw him take on four or five Arsenal defenders before smashing the ball into the roof of the net. After the game Wenger refused to shake Ferguson’s hand, but Ferguson would go on to win the FA Cup and lead United to a glorious treble.
2001 // Arséne’s Humiliation
In the 2000/2001 season United thumped Arsenal 6-1, moving them 16 points clear in the league with just 10 games remaining. Dwight Yorke scored a hat trick in 22 minutes.
2002 // Arséne Tastes Victory
Following three straight years of Manchester United winning the league, Arsenal won their first title under Wenger in 2002. The 2001/02 season saw the Gunners do the double over Sir Alex’s side, eventually sealing the league in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. After a disappointing campaign, Fergie said of 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.”
2003 // The Battle of Old Trafford
The 2003/04 campaign saw Arséne Wenger lead Arsenal to the Premier League title without losing a single league game. Earlier in the season, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s missed penalty against Arsenal led to several Arsenal players openly gloating in the Dutchman’s face including Martin Keown who was the worst culprit. In the aftermath, Wenger labelled van Nistelrooy responsible saying “I think Van Nistelrooy does not help himself frankly…he is always looking to dive.” The match went down as one of the biggest examples of Manchester United and Arsenal’s fierce rivalry and the aftermath of that game saw Arsenal receive a £175,000 fine, the largest ever given to a club by the FA. Lauren, Martin Keown, Patrick Viera and Ray Parlour were all suspended for between one and four matches.
2004 // Battle of the Buffet
The following season saw Manchester United beat Arsenal’s unbeaten league run which had then extended to 49 league games thanks to goals from Rooney and van Nistelrooy, and some generous refereeing, in a 2-0 win for United. The match itself was fiercely contested, but it was made famous for the post-match incidents. Tempers flared in the tunnel after the final whistle, with food and drink being hurled at both sets of players. Most incredibly, Cesc Fabregas threw a slice of pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson which led to the game being called ‘Pizza Gate’ by many. Ferguson later commented on the incident saying “Their behaviour was the worst thing I have seen in this sport. They got off scot-free”.
2005 // Wenger Snaps
Months after ‘Pizza Gate’ Sir Alex had refused to let the incident die, branding Arséne Wenger a “disgrace” and saying “I don’t expect Wenger to ever apologise, he’s that type of person”. Wenger responded in a furious rant in which he said “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 any more. He has lost all sense of reality. He is going out looking for a confrontation, then asking the person he is confronting to apologise.”
2005 // FA Cup Final
The FA Cup final which took place at the end of the 2004/05 season saw a resilient Arsenal beat United with 10-men after taking the game through 120 minutes and eventually winning on penalties. It would be the only time the two managers would ever meet in a major cup final.
2008 // Forgiveness
After claiming that he would “never speak about that man (Ferguson) again”, Wenger later stated in 2008 “There is a much better understanding and mutual respect now” between the two of them and this was perhaps the first indication that that two were starting to develop a better off-field relationship. The 2007/08 season saw Manchester United win the league and Champions League double and Ferguson was the genius orchestrator of one of the finest Manchester United teams of all-time.
2009 // Champions League Thrashing
United make light work of Arsenal in the Champions League semi-finals to confirm a period of superiority over their rivals that many believe is the root of the mellowing of hostilities as Arsenal’s barren run without a trophy is starting to mount, and Sir Alex focusing his energy on other rivalries with managers such as Rafa Benitez and Roberto Mancini, he said in 2009 of Wenger “We have loads of situations now where new managers come in and vanish after a couple of years. It’s just the two of us and we’ll probably ride out into the sunset together!”. Alas, a beautiful friendship is formed.
In the twilight years of Wenger and Ferguson’s rivalry it was most definitely Ferguson who had the superiority. While Fergie continued to dominate English football and win title after title, Arsenal had begin to deteriorate under Wenger and Fergie continued to boast a particularly impressive record against the Frenchman including some stellar performances. But the earlier years of the rivalry between these two great managers should be remembered with fondness, a legendary feud right at the heart of the Premier League in its finest era which produced some iconic moments.