Manchester United v Arsenal used to decide the destination of Premier League titles.
The two old sparring partners would square up, trade blows, and, usually, it’d be a truly excellent encounter.
The likes of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane would face off, as would Ryan Giggs and Robert Pires. It would, regularly, be a genuine classic.
But then, things changed, and the Gunners took to Old Trafford in 2011 for the third game of the season. Having sold Cesc Fabregas in the summer, they had drawn with Newcastle United and lost to Liverpool.
And then… The hostilities ceased, with the Gunners so soundly beaten they could barely raise a white flag on the final whistle. Just three games into the season the third favourites for the title that year had travelled up the M1 severely weakened by injuries but coming off the back of a spirited victory in Udinese to ensure Champions League football via the play-offs. They left Old Trafford emasculated and broken, defeated by the startling score-line of 8-2.
This was Arsenal’s heaviest reverse since 1896 and though there had been six previous occasions when eight or more goals had comprehensively decided a Premier League contest, all had at this point been against teams doomed to relegation or mired in extreme crisis. This was an Arsene Wenger eleven spearheaded by Robin van Persie at his most imperious: that season he scored 37 goals across all competitions. This was a team that had their very own monogrammed key to the top four’s executive washroom.
That the humiliation came against United of all adversaries must have been mortifying beyond imagination for the French manager. For his part, Alex Ferguson realised victory was so complete that anything other than empathy would come across as classless crowing. Incongruously and somewhat unnervingly, he removed the edge from his words and went full on Jerry Maguire: “It’s a cynical world now. Lose a few games and the judges come out.”
It has to be said though that for all of Arsenal’s woefulness, United were sensational. Spurred on by Manchester City’s thrashing of Spurs 5-1 away the previous day, they responded with relentless attacking verve as an unforgettable all-Manchester title race got underway.
Amidst the avalanche of goals Wayne Rooney got a hat-trick made up of two nonchalant free-kicks and a penalty. There was also a chip by Nani so audacious the ball made a scoffing sound as it gallivanted through the air.
Summer signing Ashley Young, meanwhile, grabbed the Man of the Match award, terrorising Arsenal’s own summer recruit Carl Jenkinson so remorselessly that the rookie right-back picked up two yellow cards in abject exasperation. Prior to his early departure, Jenkinson was openly admonished by Theo Walcott for deserting his post. When the placid Walcott snaps, you know it’s an awfully bad day at the office.
Elsewhere Andrei Arshavin committed a foul on Phil Jones so egregious it suspiciously looked like he was urging the ref to end his misery prematurely while players bickered among themselves; casting aspersions, positionally in disarray.
A glance at the Arsenal bench that Sunday afternoon revealed the nature of their injury concerns: Henri Lansbury, Ignazi Miquel, Oguzhan Ozyakup, and Gilles Sunu along with a raw, untried Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A glance back at their summer revealed the nature of their deeper woes. While Manchester United had enjoyed a transfer window of rejuvenation – releasing the ageing Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Paul Scholes and Edwin Van der Sar and bringing in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea – Arsenal had seen their captain Fabregas lured to Barcelona and their quixotic talent Samir Nasri poached by City.
Gooners demanded a big name and each and every day the media chimed in too, tightening the screws on a board and manager under extraordinary pressure. Three days after this Old Trafford massacre and mere hours before the window closed, the Gunners made their move tempting over Chelsea’s out-of-favour Yossi Benayoun. You can guess how that went down.
What happened next
United went on to lose the title in incredible circumstances to a late, late Sergio Aguero strike. The cruel manner of the near-miss prompted Ferguson to postpone his retirement for another year to ensure that he signed off as a winner.
Arsenal admirably recovered from this horror-show and finished third in the Premier League. Carl Jenkinson still has nightmares about Ashley Young step-overs, mind.