It was all set up perfectly for Sir Alex Ferguson to dominate English football for years to come in the 1990s.
Manchester United had won the Premier League in three out of four seasons when Arsene Wenger was appointed in 1996.
“They say he’s an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages,” Ferguson said a few months in to the season. “I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.”
It was clear Ferguson’s nose had already been put out of joint, but he oversaw another title win, with Wenger’s Arsenal finishing third in his debut campaign, making it four title wins in five years for United.
“He’s a novice,” Ferguson said towards the end of that campaign. “He should keep his opinions to Japanese football.”
Wenger had been complaining about United’s supposedly favourable fixture list, an accusation that was made back a forth a few times over the years.
Any excuse would do when the other had got the better of them.
Wenger upset the apple cart in 1997-98 when winning the Premier League title. United scored more and conceded fewer, yet it was Wenger’s team who won the league by one point. Having beaten United at home and away, they deserved it.
Marc Overmars’ winning late goal at Old Trafford was the turning point, taking United’s lead at the top of the table to six points, when they could have extended it to 12 and more or less wrapped up the title. Wenger won the FA Cup that season too. There was a new sheriff in town.
No longer was Ferguson the only manager capable of claiming the trophies for himself. It’s hard to believe now, but in the late 90s and early 2000s there was a genuine debate over which manager was the better out of the pair.
United won the league three years on the trot in the years that followed Arsenal’s win, as well as beating them in the legendary FA Cup semi-final courtesy of a Ryan Giggs goal.
There was genuine hatred between the players, fans and managers, with victories in these games meaning everything to all involved.
Wenger hit back and won the title in 2002 at Old Trafford, something Arsenal fans still sing about, given how little success they’ve enjoyed in the league since. Sylvain Wiltord scored the goal that won them the league, in a match that saw late tackles flying in all over the place.
After Ferguson took a bitter swipe over Arsenal being “scrappers”, Wenger replied with a smile: “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.”
Ferguson won the title the following season, then the following year Wenger did, after going a season unbeaten. The Invincibles were born. To go a season without losing a game in the league was a feat that Ferguson never managed, although it’s probably worth pointing out Arsenal lost more games in all competitions in 2003-04 than United did in 1998-99.
Interestingly, the hatred hit new heights when both clubs stopped challenging for the title.
After their unbeaten season, it was United who stopped them from reaching 50 games, as Ferguson’s team won 2-0. Ruud van Nistelrooy, who was on the receiving end of plenty of stick from both the players and supporters the season before when he missed a late penalty, put United ahead from the spot.
He raced to the corner flag, sliding on his knees, clearly ecstatic. He hadn’t just scored a goal, he had scored a goal against Arsenal, and that was probably as good as it got for him.
After the game, Wenger squared up to Ferguson in the tunnel, while their players threw pizza at the legendary manager.
“Their behaviour was the worst thing I have seen in this sport,” Ferguson said afterwards. “They got off scot-free.”
Both teams took a back seat to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, but the rivalry between them was intense as ever.
United went to Highbury later that season with the promise of revenge from the Arsenal players.
Still reeling from getting kicked off the field by Phil Neville and Rooney winning a penalty after Sol Campbell stepped across him but made no contact, Arsenal wanted to get their own back.
There was chaos in the tunnel before the game, with threats being made between the two captains, but United got the last laugh.
Arsenal went ahead twice but United clawed them back both times. Two goals in four minutes from a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo saw Ferguson’s team go ahead, before United went down to 10 men with 15 minutes to go.
Arsenal had a lifeline, but John O’Shea killed them off with an 89th minute goal that made it 4-2, and he looked as shocked as anyone.
Wenger never won the league again following that unbeaten season, while Ferguson went on to win a further six, before retiring five years ago.
When thinking about that debate from years gone by over who was the best, Ferguson ensured that question was unequivocally answered with his success that followed, as did Wenger when overseeing Arsenal’s decline.
Ferguson won 13 league titles, Wenger won three. Ferguson won two Champions League titles, Wenger won none.
The latter may have picked up more than his fair share of FA Cups as the years have gone by, but most of them have been consolation prizes for an otherwise depressing season without any title challenge.
People like to reflect on how the pair of them are now on good terms, friendly even, but it’s important to note that this improved relationship only formed when Arsenal stopped posing a threat to Ferguson.
If Wenger had managed to maintain the level of performance from his early days, the two would still be at each other’s throats.
Ferguson chose to step down on a high, having overseen United’s record breaking 20th title win. In contrast, Wenger clung on for dear life and missed the opportunity to say goodbye on the back of success when staying on for a further season after beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final last May.
The fans and media can now wax lyrical about what a revolutionary he was but the truth is he could have left Arsenal 10 years ago and it wouldn’t have made a difference. The methods for success that he introduced in the 90s, having inherited the best defenders in the league from George Graham that allowed his free-flowing football, stopped working for him a decade ago.
Wenger’s teams are soft. The moment captain William Gallas sat down and had a cry in the centre circle following their title blow against Birmingham in 2008, it was clear Wenger had lost it.
Arsenal were five points clear before their 2-2 draw but then spiralled down to third after this game.
“Having Gallas head the team in 2007-08 was problematic,” Jens Lehmann later reflected. “We had learnt of his appointment in the papers and we all shook our heads.”
At the time, all the talk suggested that Arsenal were a team in transition, with the presumption that Wenger would be able to recreate the success of his early days. With hindsight, it’s clear that Gallas’ meltdown was the beginning of the end and a sign of things to come where Arsenal’s mentality was concerned.
Time and again we see this soft underbelly where their players give up and roll over.
So many of them have been immensely talented, but they lack the winning state of mind. Those that have it jump ship quickly enough though.
The last real opportunity Wenger had to prove he’d still got it was in 2016. For one reason or another, United, City and Chelsea all failed to compete for the title. This had to be their year. Leicester were the only team they had to beat. Leicester! But they blew it, again.
Arsenal’s ground has looked half empty in recent months, with season ticket holders preferring to pay for their seat and not watch Wenger’s team play, which is a damning indictment of how far he has fallen.
No doubt the Emirates will be full now until the end of the season, as they try to forget all the protests and banners and chants and boos that have been directed at him.
Fans and media are desperate to re-write history and pretend the last decade never happened. One paper even claimed that Wenger was Ferguson, Mourinho and Guardiola rolled in to one.
It’s laughable really. Wenger never reached the heights any of those managers did individually, let alone collectively.
When he guaranteed the club a top four finish, it made some sense for the board to stick with him, even if the fans wanted a title challenge.
Now he can’t even get them Champions League football, and even when he does they get absolutely spanked by the best teams on the continent.
Wenger may not have had the money to invest that some teams have, namely United, City and Chelsea, but his advantage is Arsenal should have stability thanks to him. He could make long-term plans that see that the right recruitment is made, that the style of football remains the same, and no large-scale transition is needed.
Despite that advantage, three titles in 22 years is hardly anything to get excited about.
The biggest compliment that Ferguson could pay Wenger is to acknowledge that his presence made him and United better.
That Arsenal team in 1999 was incredible and the only way United could beat them was by doing the Treble.
There have been some cracking games between the two managers but, more often than not, it was Ferguson that got the better result.
The 6-1 thrashing in 2001, the 4-2 at Highbury, the Champions League battering at the Emirates, the 8-2 at Old Trafford, and so on. The funniest was arguably when United beat a more or less full strength Arsenal team with a midfield consisting of the Da Silva twins, O’Shea and Darron Gibson. If any game showed the difference in mentality instilled by the two managers, it was that one.
“I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man,” Ferguson said this week, at the end of a glowing review of Wenger’s time at Arsenal.
It was nice. He can afford to be nice now that Wenger poses no threat to his legacy.
Wenger will bow out this season with Tottenham the best club in north London and likely with no silverware
He was once a great manager but he lost his magic touch a long time ago. The only reason why he should ever be mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson is when commenting on his longevity.
But when it comes to winning, they are worlds apart.