Saturday, January 21, 2012

Best of Times, Worst of Times: Arsenal vs. Man United, 2004-2005

 Instead of a preview, I thought I'd look at some classic Arsenal matches against this week's opponents. And when those opponents are Man Utd, there's a lot of games to choose from. So, rather than one game, I thought I'd look at a whole season: 2004-2005. That year, we played United in three games that can genuinely be described as epic (we also opened the season by beating them in the Charity Shield). We lost two of the most memorable fixtures in premier league history, and won a trophy against the odds. This is a story that starts badly, but ends well.

OK, so we actually played, and beat, United in the Charity Shield in August. But, let's face it, no-one should read too much into Charity Shield results. Looking back at the match report you'll see that both teams made 5 subs that day - it's a glorified friendly. It's always nice to beat United, but there's a limit to how much you can read into these games.

So, we have to start with one of the more painful defeats in the club's history - Manchester United 2 Arsenal 0, 24 October 2004. To say this is a day of infamy in the history of Arsenal football club is an understatement. I am convinced that we were robbed in this game. Yes, the unbeaten run had to end at some stage, but not this way.

We had started the 04/05 season with a bang, winning 8 of our first 9 fixtures. Two young Spaniards - Fabreagas and Reyes - dominated the headlines. The former had begun to establish himself as a first team fixture, and played with a composure that was, frankly, baffling given his age. Reyes also began to really show why Arsene had been willing to take such a large punt on him in January, scoring 6 goals in our first 9 games.

At the time, it seemed like we were flying, but there were signs that this wasn't quite the team of the previous year. The 5-3 victory over Middlesborough was an almost farcical game, with the lead changing  multiple times during the 90 minutes, while we had thrown the lead away twice against Bolton in a 2-2 home draw in mid-September.

But going into the match at Old Trafford, I was confident that our unbeaten record would emerge unscathed.

This will probably sound like the ramblings of a typical tribal supporter, but if Mike Riley had not been refereeing that day, we would not have lost the game.  After the match had started at a blistering pace, Ferdinand clearly hauled down Ljunberg when clean through on goal. Inexplicably, Riley didn't even give a foul. The Neville brothers then decided to 'do' Reyes, with a series of fouls that basically put him out of the game. See Gary Neville's reaction to the second nutmeg in the video below. Van Nistelrooy then raked his studs down Cashley's knee in a move that wasn't seen by Riley, but which resulted in a three-match ban. So the fact that United finished the game with 11 men was utterly laughable.

With the game seemingly headed toward a 0-0, Riley added insult to injury, awarding a penalty after Rooney had clearly dived in the area. Horse face stroked the penalty home, and Sky Sports cried tears of joy as he finally earned redemption for his miss the previous season.

We then chased the game which left us exposed at the back, and United hit us on the break, with Rooney making it 2-0 late on.

The game was followed by a massive bust-up in the tunnel - the infamous 'pizza-gate' incident. This is often portrayed as evidence that Arsenal are 'poor losers' - but how else can you take a match in which at least 2 opposing players should have been sent off, and they then win because one of their players dives in the area?

Ultimately, the unbeaten run had to end at some point. And if it had to end against United, then so be it. But to lose in this fashion was incredibly hard to take. It left a very bitter taste in the mouth, and seemed to profoundly shake the club. In particular, it almost ended the career of Reyes, who never replicated his early season form again while at Arsenal. The team won only 2 of its next 7 fixtures, drawing games against the likes of Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Brom, and losing in the last minute against Liverpool thanks to the 15-second highlight of Neil Mellor's career. Chelsea leap-frogged us in the league and never really looked back.

Indeed, by the time we faced United again on Feb 1, we were really fighting for second place with them, rather than the title with Chelsea, who were now 11 points clear.

The bad blood between us and United clearly lingered, with Keane and Vieira having a spat in the tunnel before the game kicked off. Vieira had confronted Gary Neville over his treatment of Reyes in the previous game, and Keane weighed in. I suppose we'll never know what exactly happened, but it's now entered United lore that this pumped them up to win. Maybe it did - who knows.

The game seemed to start brightly for us when Paddy headed home from an Henry corner. Giggs then equalised after we dallied in defence instead of clearing the ball, but we soon re-took the lead from a sublime Bergkamp finish.

That was probably the highlight of the match as far as we were concerned. Everything seemed to go wrong after this. Rooney somehow managed to escape a sending off despite one of the most spectacular pieces of dissent captured on camera in the last decade. A tirade of abuse directly in the face of Graham Poll didn't result in the red card it warranted.

But unlike in October, we lost the game due to our own faults. Our defending was atrocious, with the nadir probably coming during the third goal. Lehman, who Wenger had dropped after some notable errors - such as his walkabout moment against panathinaikos - had been replaced by a figure who would haunt Arsenal for years to come. Mr Manuel Almunia. The third United goal, where the Spaniard had run to the edge of the area, letting Ronaldo head in, uncontested, from a yard, should have been the signal to Wenger that he had ballsed-up in the transfer market. But no - we would have to endure these mistakes for another 6 years and counting.

Indeed, we should have at least got a point from the game when a United player was finally sent off, after Silvestre headbutted Ljunberg in an act that even Poll couldn't ignore. But, instead, we let John O'Shea score the goal of his career. The bubble that surrounded the 2004 team had totally burst, and our form actually seemed to improve for the remainder of the season, now it was clear that the league was beyond this set of players.

As Chelsea cantered to their petro-dollar fuelled league title, we beat United to second place, and managed to get to the FA Cup final. The scene was seemingly set for another titanic struggle between the two clubs, but Henry's injury forced Wenger to do something that I wish  he'd done more during his tenure at the club. He went pragmatic. Instead of the balls to the wall approach we'd favoured in the previous two games, Arsene broke with his 4-4-2 formation, and packed the midfield with Fabregas, Vieira and Gilberto Silva. Up-front, Begkamp was alone, meaning that we effectively played a 4-3-2-1-0 formation, with no out-and-out striker.

Somewhat predictably, we were battered for most of the game. I don't think we had a shot on goal until Robin had a free kick in extra-time. We played defensively out of necessity rather than design, with no outlet up-front to ease the pressure. But, and in the tradition of George Graham, we hung in there in a way that we might not have done had we played with 2 attacked. And, ultimately, United couldn't break the deadlock. The game dribbled slowly towards penalties, and I feared the worst. But the boys kept their nerve, Jens pulled out a massive save against Scholes, and Paddy won the Cup with his last kick as an Arsenal player.

Now, if we'd lost that game in that way, I'd be sick. United out-played us on the day and should have won. But, for once, karma did its work. United had beaten us by foul means in October, and the universe re-aligned when we beat them in Cardiff.

After all this, Vieira was sold to Juventus that summer, and Keane was forced out of United after an explosive interview with the usually pravda-esque United TV. With Arsenal entering the beginning of a decline under Wenger, and the old heart of the United team gone, 04/05 was perhaps the end of one of the greatest rivalries in English football history. These games are still huge, but the level at which they were played from 1998 to 2005 has no equal, to my mind.

Here's hoping we can somehow kick our season back into gear tomorrow, and channel some of the great performance of yesteryear if nothing else.


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1 comment:

Alex Burkhardt said...

Compelling article. I completely agree with the closing sentiments, that this FA cup match marked the end of the most intense inter-club rivalry that I have observed during my time as a football fan, with the possible [possible] exception of the present enmity between Real and Barca. I used to get goosebumps before these games and I wasn't even playing in them. Arsenal probably had the edge technically, United physically, but on the whole they were extremely evenly matched. I'd be interested to read an article, or even a book, about the hostility between these two teams between 98 and 2005 that documented every match.