any clubs have struggled at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, but it’s perhaps surprising that Arsenal have such a poor record at the ground. FA Cup wins in 2003 and 2015 were delicious for travelling fans – as were the league victories during the double winning campaigns of 1997-98 and 2001-02 – but it’s a full 14 years since Arsenal last left Old Trafford with three points.
Arsenal’s poor record at Old Trafford is not just a recent phenomenon. There has been the odd success – they emerged victorious from the Battle of Old Trafford in October 1990 on their way to winning the league title – but a league visit to M16 has often been coupled with disappointment. Arsenal have won as many league titles in the last 40 years as they have won league games at Old Trafford – and all five of those victories ended 1-0 to the Arsenal.
Arsenal only won at Old Trafford twice in the 1990s but that was an improvement on their record in the 1980s, when they visited the ground 11 times and only won once – a 1-0 victory in December 1985. Some of those trips to Manchester were particularly painful for the away fans – a 4-0 hammering in March 1984, a 4-1 shellacking on the opening day of the 1989-90 season and a 2-0 defeat in January 1987 that ended a 22-match unbeaten run.
That 2-0 defeat in 1987 was Alex Ferguson’s first game against Arsenal and it set something of a precedent for the visiting fans, who left Manchester bemoaning refereeing decisions. Norman Whiteside threw himself into a series of wild challenges in the early stages of the match yet, when David Rocastle kicked out in retaliation, he was the player sent off by referee George Tyson. “There was one player who ruled the game in the first 20 minutes and that’s when the ref should have stamped his authority,” said Arsenal boss George Graham after the game, not so subtly hinting that Whiteside and Tyson had cost his team dear. The rows continued after the final whistle in the Old Trafford tunnel, which would become something of a battleground over the next few decades.
The famous brawl between the two clubs in October 1990 was an inevitable conclusion of what had gone before. Two of the main instigators – Brian McClair and Nigel Winterburn – had history. McClair had missed a penalty for United at Highbury in an FA Cup match two years earlier and Winterburn had chased him down to gloat in his face. So, when Winterburn flew into a challenge on Denis Irwin at Old Trafford, the United players were only too happy to pile in. As with most football brawls, there was plenty of shoving and gesturing, but few clean blows.
The incident overshadowed a rare Arsenal win at the stadium – Anders Limpar’s goal proving the difference – as did the subsequent points deductions imposed on both clubs. Graham’s men were made of stern stuff, though. When the team finished the season by winning their second title in three years, the crowd at Highbury celebrated by singing “you can stick your fucking two points up your arse”.
Success at Old Trafford has proven to be a decent barometer of Arsenal’s title aspirations. After the 1990 match, another eight years would pass before Arsenal won at United’s home. By this time a new rivalry was brewing, with Alex Ferguson facing an unlikely challenger to his supremacy.
Arsène Wenger, in his first full season in charge, was beginning to make his mark, with Arsenal reeling in United during the back end of the 1997-98 title race. Arriving at Old Trafford in March, Arsenal trailed United by nine points but with three games in hand. A draw would not be a disaster, but a win would make a statement and give the players a huge dose of belief.
Despite starting well, deputy keeper Alex Manninger was forced into two decent saves against a United team missing Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs. With 11 minutes remaining, Marc Overmars, who was a constant threat, raced through to score Arsenal’s first Premier League goal at Old Trafford. The 1-0 win sent the away corner into ecstasy, with the reaction of one fan becoming a regular image on our screens as Arsenal marched to the title. Barry Ferst was one of many Arsenal supporters who clearly now believed.
The rivalry bloomed. Ferguson v Wenger; Keane v Vieira; that unforgettable semi-final replay at Villa Park in 1999. But just when Wenger seemed to have forged a team capable of competing with United, he was forced to rebuild. Replacing the legendary back four was a major task. When Arsenal went to Old Trafford in February 2001 with Oleh Luzhny, Gilles Grimandi and Igors Stepanovs in their defensive unit, the result was chilling.
United scored five goals in the first 37 minutes. To make matters worse, the away fans had the choice of following the action on the pitch or watching former Spurs striker Teddy Sheringham warming up on the touchline by miming the action of lifting trophies. When he came off the bench in the second half, he scored United’s sixth and final goal.
That 6-1 thrashing in 2001 – and the fact that United went to win the league by 10 points that season – suggested Arsenal would have to wait a long time for another victory at Old Trafford. Yet, the following year, Arsenal clinched the title by beating United in front of their own fans. After weathering a physical battering from United early on, Arsenal held firm. Sylvain Wiltord scored the only goal in another 1-0 win that ensured Arsenal went through a league season without tasting defeat away from home.
Two seasons later, Wenger’s dream of remaining undefeated in a Premier League campaign became reality. The dream of invincibility seemed a million miles away when United were awarded a penalty in the last minute of their tempestuous meeting at Old Trafford on 21 September 2003. To add to the tension, the penalty was to be taken by Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was far from popular in the Arsenal ranks given his role in getting Patrick Vieira sent off earlier in the game. When the Dutchman crashed his penalty against the bar, the Arsenal players exploded, surrounding and shoving Van Nistelrooy. Bans followed and debates raged, but Arsenal had escaped with a point.
The rivalry would get even messier the following season, when a refereeing display of staggering ineptitude helped United end Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run. In October 2004, Mike Riley lost control immediately, allowing the Neville brothers to foul José Antonio Reyes repeatedly, failing to send off Rio Ferdinand for a professional foul on Freddie Ljungberg, and missing a terrible tackle by Van Nistelrooy on Ashley Cole that would later earn the striker a ban.
To top it all, Riley then awarded United a penalty after Wayne Rooney fell over Sol Campbell’s leg. The Arsenal fans – and players – insisted that Rooney dived but the United striker disagreed, saying: “Have I ever dived? On holiday, yeah. But, no, I have never intentionally tried to dive. There have been times when I’ve tried to stay on my feet to get the shot off rather than going down.”
United won the game 2-0, Cesc Fàbregas threw a slice of pizza that ended up on Ferguson’s face and Arsenal were never the same again under Wenger. With the Invincibles gradually leaving the club and the move to the Emirates pushing Wenger towards Project Youth, Arsenal fell below the high standards the Frenchman had set in his first decade at the club. They won at Old Trafford in 2006, when Emmanuel Adebayor scored the only goal of the game and Jens Lehmann pulled off a stunning late save to deny Ole Gunnar Solskjær, but have done nothing since.
Amid these 14 years of hurt stands perhaps the most embarrassing defeat in the club’s history. The 8-2 debacle in August 2011 marked a low point in the Wenger years. Arsenal managed to qualify for the Champions League at the end of that season, but the decline was clear. The team took another hit when Robin van Persie left for United and scored in two wins against his old club at Old Trafford, the latter of which was achieved under the stuttering David Moyes regime. While other clubs have lined up to embarrass United at Old Trafford during the post-Ferguson years, Arsenal have not been among them.
Their 3-2 defeat in 2016 – the game in which Marcus Rashford announced himself in the Premier League – was emblematic of how the rivalry has developed. Arsenal had the chance to put pressure on league leaders Leicester but left Old Trafford with nothing, only serving to confirm the suspicion that they still possessed a soft underbelly.
Will Mikel Arteta’s team end the winless run on Sunday afternoon? The new manager has made Arsenal harder to break down, but they may be short of the creativity required to beat a top team away from home. One thing is certain: if Arsenal do win at the ground for the first time since 2006, it will be a shame that many of the fans who have attended various defeats over the years will not be there to see it.