Games between Arsenal and Manchester United lost their spice some time around 2011 when the Gunners arrived at Old Trafford for a Premier League game and were sent packing 8-2.
Arsenal had fallen away from the upper echelons of English football by then, still routinely qualifying for the Champions League but failing to mount a serious title challenge since 2008 and, at that stage, without a trophy of any description since an FA Cup in 2005.
United were still at the peak of their powers then. Only a Didier Drogba goal that should have been flagged offside in 2010 and a late collapse against Everton in 2012 denied them what would have been an unprecedented five English titles in a row. As such, their games against an increasingly uncompetitive Arsenal became decreasingly meaningful.
Then came United’s own downfall. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 paved the way for nearly a decade of false dawns of new eras, wasted spending and underperforming. It wasn’t until Erik ten Hag arrived in 2022 that an identity and mental toughness returned. Mikel Arteta, of course, has had the same kind of impact at Arsenal over a slightly longer period.
But in the intervening years, people cared less and less about Arsenal and Manchester United as a fixture. Not when Manchester City and Liverpool were starting to set new standards in the Premier League and Chelsea continued to be there or thereabouts most of the time.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was the Premier League game that everyone immediately looked for on the fixture list. Invariably both would be fighting for the title and any time they met would have major implications in how a given season would pan out.
What’s more, because of what was at stake when they came together, many of the Premier League’s best games and/or most iconic moments were when Arsenal and Manchester United played.
After too long, this Sunday’s five-goal thriller at the Emirates Stadium reminded the rest of football what Arsenal/Manchester United games should be about.
For starters, it meant something in the wider context of the season. This was the league leaders and, by association, title favourites, up against a rapidly improving side beaten only once in all competitions since the beginning of October.
The players on the pitch didn’t disappoint either. Both vibrant teams wanted to win the game and win it in the right way. They each attacked and it swung back and forth to keep both sets of fans and neutrals on the edge of their seats.
United took the lead through Marcus Rashford, only for Arsenal to hit back with two of their own from Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka. It was big players having big performances. The Red Devils equalised themselves when Lisandro Martinez scored, before Nketiah got his second at the death to win it for the Gunners and push them another step closer to a possible title.
Given the journeys both clubs have been on, it was about time that that the games between them brought some of that old spice back and long may it continue.