Sir Alex Ferguson had many obstacles to overcome during his time at Old Trafford, not least the influx of foreign managers. But it was the bespectacled Frenchman who gave him most trouble. This is part 3 of an extract from Even the Defeats – How Sir Alex Ferguson Used Setbacks to Inspire Manchester United’s Greatest Triumphs. Read part one and part two.
Arsene Wenger was up for the challenge after United’s title win of 2003. The following season, boiling point in the rivalry was soon reached. By September, in fact, with a match that became known as ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’. Ferguson certainly wanted it to be a fight, thinking he had found a chink in Wenger’s Arsenal – a soft centre. ‘It’s funny,’ Paul Scholes said. ‘In team talks against Arsenal, the ball was rarely mentioned. We knew we had to get about them. We had to tackle them. The manager always put that into us, he revved us up.’
He would eventually expose that weakness, albeit not on that September day.
It was a cantankerous game with six bookings in total, plus a red card for Patrick Vieira, much to the annoyance of his Arsenal team-mates who were convinced Ruud van Nistelrooy had conned the referee to get the French international sent off. When the Dutch striker earned and missed a last-minute penalty, the Arsenal players couldn’t restrain their delight. Arsenal’s Martin Keown said, ‘When the player missed, I just give it to him, as you might do in the playground.’
Keown jumped up and struck the back of Van Nistelrooy’s head as the defender came back down to earth in a mixture of rage and ecstasy. Other Arsenal players joined in with the pushing of the Dutchman, and the incident ended up earning the London outfit a £175,000 fine, the largest ever given to a club by the FA. In addition to the already dismissed Vieira, defenders Lauren and Keown, and midfielder Ray Parlour, all earned suspensions for their actions.
‘They went over the top,’ Scholes said. ‘It wasn’t a nice thing to see.’ But nor was the fact that Arsenal remained top – and unbeaten, something they would maintain throughout the campaign to become the only English top flight side to not lose a league match in a 38-game season. And to think, they were centimetres from having that run broken at Old Trafford. United would end up finishing a distant third and it was time for Ferguson to go back to the drawing board and devise a plan to overcome his nemesis.
Arsenal, by virtue of their record-breaking campaign, won the title at a canter and an ungracious Ferguson complained that their achievement was tainted by too many draws. But the facts didn’t lie. United ended up 15 points behind Arsenal.
‘You could see his mind thinking, what we were thinking – these are better than us and we need to improve,’ Phil Neville recalled. ‘You could see him planning. How do I topple these because this is probably going to be my biggest challenge as Manchester United manager.’
Neville continued, ‘It was chipping away at us every day, with little things. It wasn’t a big Winston Churchill speech, it was every single day “everyone loves Arsenal, look at the football they’re playing, everyone’s praising them”, and it was hurting us every single day.’
But Ferguson was up for the fight. ‘The gaffer loved the challenge,’ his former assistant Steve McClaren mused. ‘He had to have someone to fight, someone to complain about Arsenal! Arsenal! Arsenal! Wenger!’
There was an FA Cup semi-final success in 2004 over the Gunners that suggested Ferguson was coming close to a formula to beat his counterpart. Arsenal’s unbeaten stretch in the league, however, continued well into the 2004/05 season. It had reached 49 games when the two teams met once more at Old Trafford in what turned out to be ‘The Battle of the Buffet’.
‘When you hear Wenger now talk about his greatest achievement he talks about the 49 games unbeaten. And the fact United were so desperate to stop it I think says a lot about the mindset of Ferguson,’ journalist Sam Wallace said. The United boss had spent every minute of the previous two weeks plotting the downfall of Wenger’s Arsenal in that October 2004 clash. United kicked their opponents off the park, and in particular José Antonio Reyes, who endured some pretty ugly challenges from Gary Neville. Having missed under the same circumstances a year before, it was ironic that it was a Van Nistelrooy penalty midway through the second half that sparked the end of Arsenal’s unbeaten run. Rooney made victory certain with a late tap-in.
The Gunners were fuming once again, because of what they deemed to be rough treatment from Ferguson’s team, but they were also aggrieved at a couple of key decisions from the referee.
Firstly, Rio Ferdinand was fortunate not to see red in the first half when he took out Freddie Ljungberg when the Swede was through on goal. And then there was the perceived foul from Sol Campbell on Wayne Rooney that led to the crucial spotkick converted by Van Nistelrooy. The Arsenal players felt the Englishman had gone down too easily to earn the penalty. The Battle of the Buffet nickname for the occasion came from what followed the match. ‘There was a bit of commotion,’ Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein recalled. ‘And then right in front of my eyes I saw a pizza winging its way, just flying in the air, and unfortunately landing on Sir Alex.’
Cesc Fàbregas remembers the incident clearly. He said, ‘We felt so upset about that day. How it happened. It was the end of the unbeaten run of 49 games, the end of the invincible era. The way it happened – Wayne Rooney diving, the referee letting them do whatever they wanted, Gary Neville kicking José Antonio Reyes all over the park. Even the second free kick he should have been sent off. He kept going and going. I wasn’t even playing that game, I was about to come on when they scored the second goal. After that I was one of the first ones to run into the tunnel. And I had a pizza in my hand. In the olden days we had pizza in the changing room. So I took it, and I was eating it and I remember Edu coming in, Robert Pires coming in. And then we start hearing shouting. All of a sudden the players went out, and I was the last one to go out. I was 17 and skinny, and the Old Trafford tunnel is so tiny, I could see Rio Ferdinand, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Sol Campbell, and I was at the back, I couldn’t do anything from there. I was upset, and took the pizza … and I didn’t even know where it fell. I promise. I was meant to hit someone on the other side. After that they told me that it hit Ferguson on the face which obviously I apologised for 10,000 times. He was very upset, I heard. But it was not directed at him.’ And the topping? ‘A Margherita.’
But in the long term, Arsenal were ‘rattled’ according to Phil Neville. Indeed, Ferguson thinks that single defeat ‘scrambled Arsène’s brain’ to such a degree it affected him permanently. Arsenal never won another league title under Wenger, and rarely threatened to do so, whereas a period of
dominance would return to Old Trafford in the not-too-distant future. Ferguson knew how to respond to a defeat while his opposite number was less adept, certainly over the long haul.
Now the insults being fired were coming from Wenger towards Ferguson, in another sign the power was shifting back towards the Scot. ‘Ferguson’s out of order. He has lost all sense of reality,’ was one jibe directed from Wenger at his opposite number. It got worse. Wenger later said of Ferguson, ‘I will never talk about THAT man again.’
In the return match a few months later, things began to kick off between the two teams before a ball had even been kicked. United captain Roy Keane had a go at Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira over some comments the French international made in the direction of Gary Neville in the pre-match warm-up. More significantly, United played Arsenal off the park that evening, winning 4-2 at Highbury, including a marvellous goal late on from John O’Shea that sealed victory. O’Shea looked as surprised as anyone at how he had scored such a sublime effort. The tide had turned.
Wenger enjoyed a fortuitous win over United on penalties in that season’s FA Cup Final in a match Ferguson’s side dominated. But the result was a one-off. Indeed, the FA Cup in 2005 was the last trophy Wenger would win in the remaining eight years Ferguson was United manager. The evidence is clear when analysing the records of the two managers when their teams played each other. From Wenger’s arrival in 1996 to the summer of 2005, the Arsenal manager had a 41 per cent win ratio, compared with Ferguson’s 38 per cent. Post 2005, until the Scot’s eventual retirement in 2013, Wenger’s win ratio plummeted to 20 per cent. Ferguson, meanwhile, saw his win ratio shoot up to 60 per cent.
Ironically, the pair went up against each other 49 times, including Charity or Community Shields, with Ferguson victorious on 23 occasions to Wenger’s 16, with the rest ending in draws. More importantly, Ferguson won the Premier League on ten occasions while Wenger was Arsenal manager, with the Frenchman sealing three league titles. So what changed? Though Ferguson eventually overcame Wenger in the head to heads thanks to tactical and physical masterplans, there was a lot more to how he eventually prevailed over his French rival.
For a start, Wenger stole an initial march in his deep knowledge of the European market, something Ferguson counteracted by improved scouting, which even included successful raids on the Latin American markets. That would bring shrewd purchases such as the Brazilian twins Rafael and Fábio da Silva, as well as Mexican striker Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández. But the stepping up of the European scouting missions, as well as the appointment of Carlos Quieroz as assistant manager, helped United secure Cristiano Ronaldo at the expense of Arsenal in 2003.
There was more. Losing the titles of 1998, 2002 and 2004 hurt Ferguson. He had to respond. The manager would often use defeats or title losses to inspire the club to greater things and this time was no different. It was also something Wenger was ultimately unable to achieve over a sustained period of time. ‘Football brings out the best and worst in people,’ Ferguson said, ‘because the emotional stakes are so high. In a
high-stakes game, a player can lose his nerve for a minute and he can lose his temper too. And you’re left regretting it. Arsenal had a lot of those moments, but Arsène struggled to believe that internal failings and weaknesses can sometimes cause you to lose. The explanation is sometimes within.’ When United lost, Ferguson would eventually find an answer, at least privately, whereas his opposite number would find an excuse. Queiroz returned to the club in 2004, after a year managing Real Madrid, and was largely left responsible for training, as well as tactical work regarding
opponents, particularly in Europe. He would also prove invaluable in helping Ronaldo settle in, mainly thanks to both being native Portuguese speakers. The pair’s relationship annoyed Ruud van Nistelrooy who, after an altercation with Ronaldo during training, told the winger, ‘What are you going to do? Complain to your daddy?’ It was a clear reference to how the Dutch striker viewed the bond between Ronaldo and Queiroz. It also prompted Ferguson to sell Van Nistelrooy, on the basis that the striker was proving more trouble than he was worth. A by-product of that decision was the improvement of the manager’s rapport with Ronaldo. To this day, Ronaldo still speaks in glowing terms of his former boss.
Even though Queiroz left in 2008, Ferguson could move on, promoting both Mike Phelan and René Meulensteen from his backroom staff to offset the loss of his right-hand man. The domestic juggernaut continued. Herein lies Ferguson’s biggest advantage over Wenger. Whether it be losing matches, player or assistant coaches, the Scot would always bounce back, often higher than ever before. Once Wenger lost his legendary defence and goalkeeper, or his French midfield stalwarts of Petit and Vieira, he struggled to find adequate replacements. In addition, he was unable to respond with the same authority and vigour when losing big matches.
By 2011, due to the chasm in quality on the pitch between the two clubs, there was a warmth in the relationship between the two managers that would have been unheard of a decade before. Ferguson clearly felt his opposite number was no longer a threat. Worse than that, during the 8-2 humiliation of Wenger’s Arsenal at Old Trafford in the August of that year, Ferguson felt so sorry for the Frenchman that ‘it actually reached the point where I felt – “please, no more goals”’. Wenger, once the master at plucking talent from around Europe, was no longer demonstrating such prowess in the transfer market, according to Ferguson. Yet the Scot was showing he was now adept at achieving sustained success on a budget. In his last four years at the club Ferguson had a net transfer spend of just £47.8m. This figure pales into insignificance when compared with the net spend of rivals Chelsea and Manchester City over the same period. Chelsea’s in those four years was more than £250m while City’s exceeded £300m. Even Liverpool outspent United between 2009 and 2013, with a total net spend of roughly £80m. And even though Wenger spent less than Ferguson during this time, making a small profit for his club, the performances of his team reflected one that needed major surgery.
Wenger’s training methods, so revered when he first arrived at the club, became dated. When Robin van Persie arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2012 he described the training as very different to what he had left behind. The Dutch striker said, ‘It just clicked, with the sessions we had with Ferguson and Meulensteen [first-team coach]. It was very focussed on the next opponent. Every week we had different kinds of sessions. For example, if we played against Chelsea, the whole week we were training on going over their left side, so our right side, getting a wide low cross, because we needed a low finish against Petr Čech, because Čech is very tall and has difficulties in going down. That detail, that is what I really liked.’
In the game Van Persie was referring to against Chelsea in October 2012, United won 3-2 with all three goals coming as a result of low crosses from the right. Arsenal finished fourth that season, 16 points behind United, who reclaimed the title they had lost to Manchester City the previous season. Though Van Persie is only talking about how it was at United, you sense he is also referring to how this didn’t take place at his previous club. Many former Arsenal players spoke of how the training would rarely consider opponents. Wenger had just one assistant, Pat Rice, in all but one of the years he came up against his Scottish foe. Ferguson, meanwhile, had six in the same period, each one gaining more trust and responsibility as the boss spent more time focussing on other tasks while the club continued to expand. Ferguson once said an ability to delegate was crucial to his success, something Wenger struggled to do, remaining heavily involved in training sessions right up until he too rode off into the sunset of retirement in the summer of 2018. He did so, however, in the knowledge that having won a few initial battles against Ferguson, he had been resoundingly beaten in the war of attrition.
We would like to thank author John Silk (@JSilk) for sending this extract our way, and he will be appearing on the Strettycast to talk about the book this week!
Even the Defeats – How Sir Alex Ferguson Used Setbacks to Inspire Manchester United’s Greatest Triumphs. is published by Pitch Publishing, £20. It is available from Amazon.