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Man Utd Against Arsenal was a More Intense Rivalry Than Liverpool Versus Man City

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Man Utd Against Arsenal was a More Intense Rivalry Than Liverpool Versus Man City

What makes a good football rivalry? Well, great players. Iconic moments in a said rivalry that live long in the mind. Competition over a sustained period of time. Memorable goals. A compelling backstory for why the rivalry exists.

And that is exactly what the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s had in abundance. The Premier League hasn’t seen a rivalry as fierce or competitive as that since, and it likely won’t ever again. But with the recent dominance of Manchester City and Liverpool in the English game, is this fixture now better than the Arsenal-Man Utd one of years gone by? With recent discourse in the press and on social media suggesting exactly that, here is why that is wrong…

First of all, this is in no way a dig at either Liverpool or City. They are both fantastic sides with equally fantastic players, and they have both been a credit to themselves and as representatives of the Premier League. They have produced squads that are in the conversation for arguably the greatest Premier League sides of all time.

City and Liverpool have battled it out over the last few years and given us great matches, but their matchups are missing the things that make it a fierce rivalry. Their matches lack intensity and animosity on the pitch. It is a one-sided rivalry, with City hoovering up most of the trophies won by the two clubs.

The backstory for why the rivalry exists is missing – Arsene Wenger surprisingly knocked Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United off their perch as undisputed champions of England when he arrived at Arsenal from Japanese club Nagoya Grampus, and both clubs’ subsequent challenging for the Premier League over the coming years is what really started their rivalry.

Rangers and Celtic’s rivalry is steeped in religious divides, the footballing philosophy of blooding youngsters versus buying ready-made stars of Barcelona and Real Madrid, for example. What is the story of Liverpool vs City?

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The Battle on the Pitch

When Arsenal and Manchester United sides would step out onto the pitch, both sides would be littered with world-class players. Thierry Henry. Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Patrick Vieira. Wayne Rooney. Jaap Stam. These are legends of the sport. And they would be ready to do battle.

Spurred on by the two different styles of their managers, their clashes would be memorable, and battles would commence in every area of the pitch. Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy would regularly compete for the top scorer award come to the end of the season and would be eager to bag for their sides in this fixture.

The fearsome Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira grudge match, captains of their respective teams, each trying to win the midfield battle. Wide players like Ryan Giggs and Robert Pires would be constantly trying to beat their man and whip a ball into the box, or as they were equally adept at it, beat their man and take a shot on goal, which would usually find the back of the net.

The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Martin Keown would each lead their respective backline, trying to prevent opposition strikers from drawing first blood. Full-backs like Ashley Cole and Gary Neville would stand their ground against their skilful, pacy opposing attackers.

Players who could create chances like Dennis Bergkamp, Paul Scholes or David Beckham were there to open up the opposing defence. And both sides would be blessed with young talent who would have a say on the game as well, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Wayne Rooney all involved in this fixture.

In contrast, there isn’t much of this competition in every position on the pitch in a Liverpool-City game. Only in the forward areas, where Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling play, and in defensive midfield with Fabinho and Rodri, are the teams arguably equal.

Goalkeeper Alisson is the undisputed best in the Premier League, with amazing shot-stopping ability and a range of passing that helps Liverpool build attacks, whereas City’s Ederson is also sublime in terms of his passing but not on par with Alisson in terms of shot-stopping. Virgil Van Dijk is the best centre-back in world football, a level above anyone else, whereas City’s defenders are good, but not great. The same goes for full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, who are excellent in their roles, whereas neither of City’s full-backs are as good as Liverpool’s.

In midfield, Manchester City dominates, with creative players like Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva better chance creators than anyone else in Liverpool’s midfield. And up top, Sergio Aguero has now left, but Erling Haaland is reportedly signing for City this summer and would definitely be the best striker from both clubs.

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Arsenal vs United had far More Iconic Moments

Liverpool and Manchester City matches lack the famous moments that go down in history, those moments that are remembered more than what the result of the match was. John Stones’ goal-line clearance in City’s 2-1 win in 2019 is really the only thing that springs to mind for City and Liverpool. In contrast, many famous incidents have occurred that have gone down in Arsenal-United lore.

The crazed reaction of Martin Keown when Ruud Van Nistelrooy smacked a stoppage-time penalty against the woodwork. The infamous spat between Keane and Vieira in the tunnel before their match in 2005 that would go on to produce six goals where a young man known as Ronaldo would score twice. Whatever happened to him?

And when Arsenal’s Invincibles side finally lost in 2004, a brawl broke out in the tunnel and a slice of pizza was thrown by Cesc Fabregas at United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Moments like these imprint on the mind and stay with people for a long time – a rivalry with talking points like this is remembered for a long, long time. And as well as memorable moments, these two sides have played out some extraordinary games.

These matches were exhilarating and, full of quality, on some occasions legitimately decided who would be winning the title or some other trophy. The 2005 FA Cup final which Arsenal won 5-4 on penalties, with the departing Vieira scoring with his last kick of a ball in an Arsenal shirt to win the trophy. Marc Overmars’ goal in a 1-0 win in March 1998 to dent United title ambitions and propel Arsenal to their first-ever Premier League title.

The 2004 game in which Arsenal finally relinquished their Invincibles title after a 2-0 Man United win was marred by players' spats, as was the goalless draw played out by the two sides in 2003, where tempers flared and fines were handed out to seven players afterwards, not forgetting Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s stoppage-time penalty miss. Ryan Giggs’ unforgettable solo goal in extra time in that tense FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park in 1999. The breath-taking 2005 4-2 victory by United at Highbury that was overshadowed by what had happened in the tunnel pre-match. Or the Gunners’ 1-0 smash-and-grab win in 2002 that secured them the title at Old Trafford. There we so many brilliant games in the history of this fixture.

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The Managers’ Mind Games

It wasn’t just the on-pitch battles that made this fixture a memorable one. Off it, the clubs’ two managers were constantly at it in the press. Wenger was unhappy with Ferguson and the favourable decisions that United mostly received, and Ferguson was unhappy with the newbie Wenger and how he had transformed English football and snatched United’s dominance from them.

Indeed, Ferguson was once quoted as saying “Arsene Wenger has been in Japan. He doesn’t know anything about English football and the demands of our game”. A manager questioning another manager on their know-how of the game is unheard of now, but this is the animosity that the Scot had for the Frenchman. In contrast to the venom-laced words from Ferguson, there is not really any of these barbs in the press from Klopp and Guardiola – they are respectful and speak highly of each other.

United and Arsenal still had a begrudging respect for each other and the quality of the other side, certainly, but they still had the animosity and hatred that a great rivalry should have. Guardiola and Klopp both actually embraced each other after the recent 2-2 draw between their clubs – could you imagine Wenger and Ferguson ever doing that?

Martin Keown recently commented on the different nature, saying “…what is glaringly different is the respect that Guardiola and Klopp reserve for one another… Arsenal went in to disrupt the party that United were having in the Premier League – and we did that which they didn’t like – but City and Liverpool have grown together”.

And is the Liverpool-Man City rivalry even that? Rivalries should have a sense of competition and with both sides winning similar amounts. With Arsenal-Man Utd there was this - a back-and-forth between the sides, a sense of competition. During the seven years from 1997 to 2004, whilst Arsenal lifted the league three times, Man United won it four times – so pretty much equal between the sides. Yes, the Gunners and the Red Devils were competitive sides, and this is a serious contrast to the one-sidedness of the City-Liverpool rivalry.

Out of the last four league campaigns, City have won three league titles and are currently on track for their fourth this season, whilst Liverpool have just one Premier League trophy to their name. Between 1996 and 2005, either United or Arsenal lifted the FA cup a combined seven times, with Arsenal winning it four times and United three times. Klopp has never won the FA Cup at Liverpool, and City have only won it once under Guardiola.

Ultimately, with its many memorable moments and matches, not to mention the many great players who played in those matches and the longevity of the rivalry, the Manchester United-Arsenal rivalry is iconic and will go down as one of the best in English football.

But, with the scintillating football being played by Manchester City and Liverpool currently, and the gap in quality between them and the rest of the Premier League that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, it’s possible that maybe, one day, we could say that the City-Liverpool rivalry is the greatest. This one is still playing out and could do for many years, so ultimately time will tell us. But for now, United and Arsenal’s rivalry should still be considered as the most intense, the most thrilling, and the best.