Arsenal v Chelsea Rivalry & History

Arsenal v ChelseaArsenal and Chelsea contest one of the capital cities numerous London derby matches. Two big clubs in close proximity is almost guaranteed to produce sparks when they clash and contests between the Gunners and The Blues is no exception.

Both sides have closer rivals but fans in the north and the west of the city will still look to get one over the other during the course of a season. Below we preview the next encounter, look back at the most recent matches and detail the key moments and characters in the history of the rivalry between these two sides.

Map of Arsenal & Chelsea Stadiums

Map of Arsenal & Chelsea Stadiums

About the Arsenal v Chelsea London Derby

Given the sheer size of London, it’s hardly surprising that the nation’s capital has a large number of football teams within its borders. Even away from the big teams you’ve still got the likes of Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Millwall and Charlton Athletic within the boundaries of the city.

Given how many sides there are that go head-to-head on a fairly regular basis, it’s little wonder that many of the derbies don’t get treated equally by the wider public, but for the supporters of teams that see each other as rivals, these matches provide plenty to get excited when they roll around.

Quite which bracket the Arsenal versus Chelsea game falls into is open to at least a little bit of interpretation. The Gunners had won three top-flight titles before their West London rivals had even won one, picking up a fourth the year after Chelsea finally got off the mark.

It’s fair to say that Arsenal was the more successful club before the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge. Yet after the Russian billionaire took over Chelsea and pumped money into it, the two clubs found themselves fighting it out for the same honours on a regular basis. Here’s a look at an ever burgeoning rivalry.

The First Encounter

Leather Footballs

Given that Arsenal was founded in 1886 in the Woolwich district of London and Chelsea was formed in 1904 in West London, it’s easy to understand why the two teams didn’t face each other in the league until the ninth of November 1907. That Football League First Division game drew a crowd of between fifty and seventy thousand to Stamford Bridge to watch the home side win 2-1.

It was something of a surprise result, considering that Arsenal was the first London club to make it into the Football League, which they did in 1893, and had been playing First Division football since 1904. Chelsea spent their first two years in the Second Division before gaining promotion in 1907, leading to the first London derby of the top-flight. Given the Blues won just two of their opening ten league fixtures and sat in nineteenth place compared to Arsenal’s tenth, you can see why many thought the away side would see it as a banker.

Instead it was the home team that raced into the lead, going 2-0 up thanks to a brace from George Hilsdon. Arsenal pulled one back but it wasn’t enough and the new league record crowd were mostly delighted with the final score.

It would prove to be something of a decisive victory in terms of the fortune of the two clubs, given that they would go on to draw 0-0 at Arsenal’s then Plumstead-based Manor Ground in March. As a result, Chelsea would finish the season thirteenth, one place ahead of Arsenal thanks to a superior goal average of 0.85 rather than 0.81. 

Other Early Matches

Aerial View of Stamford Bridge During Match in the Late 1920's
Nordisk Familjebok AB (Ltd) via Wikimedia Commons

With the exception of 1913-1915 when the Gunners played in the Second Division and the break from football due to the First and Second World Wars, Arsenal played top-flight football every season from the moment they were promoted in 1904.

Chelsea, in comparison, had a much more up and down history until the end of the 1990s. As a result, there haven’t always been league matches between the two sides that are worthy of the mention. Indeed, the Blues were relegated out of the First Division in 1910 and spent two seasons in the second-tier of English football.

The absence of their rivals from West London didn’t lessen the degree to which Arsenal supporters wanted to watch the two teams go up against each other, however, and plenty turned up at Stamford Bridge to watch the two sides duke it out in 1935.

In total there were just shy of eighty-three thousand people inside the ground to watch the match on the twelfth of October, which remains the second-highest crowd to attend a top-flight football match to this day.

The record crowd watched a rather dull 1-1 draw play out, but it was still something of an achievement for the home side considering Arsenal had finished seventeen points above them on their way to winning the title the season before.

The 1950s saw a set of close encounters between the two clubs in the semi-final stage of the FA Cup. The 1949-1950 season actually had two derbies as the semi-finals, with Arsenal beating Chelsea 1-0 in a replay having drawn 2-2 in the initial match, earning them the right to play Liverpool in the final who had overcome their own Merseyside rivals Everton 2-0 in their match.

Two years later and the two London clubs met in the semi-finals once more, with a replay being necessary to separate them for the second time. Having drawn 1-1 in the first match, the Gunners were again victorious when they beat the Stamford Bridge club 3-0 in the replay. Unlike in 1950, when Arsenal went on to win the trophy, they lost 1-0 to Newcastle United in the final.

Three Major Finals

Despite the two clubs enjoying success throughout their history, they didn’t actually meet each other in a cup final until 2002. It was the first of three cup finals that they played against each other after the turn of the millennium, which might help to explain just how much the fortunes of Chelsea were turned around by the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in 2003.

The 2002 FA Cup Final


That being said, it was the year before when the two clubs met in the FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The Gunners had beaten the holders Liverpool in the fourth round before knocking out Gillingham in the fifth and needing a replay to dispatch Newcastle in the quarter-final. They also defeated Newcastle’s fellow northeast side Middlesbrough in the semi-final to setup their encounter with Chelsea.

The Stamford Bridge club, meanwhile, required a replay to beat both Norwich City in the third round and West Ham United in the fourth. They defeated Preston North End to set up a London derby with Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-final and then another derby against Fulham in the semi-final.

Despite the match against Arsenal in the final being their fourth London derby of their journey in the FA Cup that season, Chelsea couldn’t quite do enough to beat Arsenal as they had the other three London clubs.

The Gunners were appearing in the FA Cup final for the second consecutive year, having narrowly lost out to Liverpool the season before. It was also their fifteenth appearance in the FA Cup final, having won it seven times before then. Chelsea, meanwhile, were making their seventh appearance having won it just three times at that stage.

Arsenal had come from behind to beat Chelsea in the previous league encounter on Boxing Day and had been unbeaten domestically since December 2001, so it’s little surprise that they were the favourites heading into the final. Even so, Chelsea put up a strong defence and it took the Gunners more than an hour before they took the lead through Ray Parlour.

As soon as they went ahead, though, it was obvious which way the match was going to go, with Freddie Ljungberg putting the game beyond any doubt ten minutes from the end. The North London club went on to beat Manchester United a few days later in order to win their second league and cup double under French manager Arsene Wenger.

The 2007 League Cup Final

Blue and Red Boxing Gloves

If the match in 2002 was a formality then the League Cup final between the two sides five years later was anything but. The trophy was sponsored by Carling at the time and the encounter was that fiery that it led the press to dub it the ‘Snarling Cup Final’.

As we’ll come on to discuss, the rivalry between the two clubs was certainly stoked by the rivalry of the two managers, with José Mourinho of Chelsea never having much respect for his opposite number Wenger.

Arsenal actually started the stronger of the two sides, with Cesc Fàbregas controlling the middle of the park. Indeed, the Gunners took a 1-0 lead thanks to a counter-attack that was rounded off by Theo Walcott.

It took Chelsea just shy of twenty minutes to get their first shot on target, but it was the start of a turnaround that would see them lift the trophy. Two minutes after that first shot on target and the Blues were level thanks to a Didier Drogba goal. From that moment on the West Londoners began to impose themselves on the game and looked the more likely to score.

The winning goal came six minutes from the end of normal time when Arjen Robben crossed for Drogba to head home. There was a good amount of stoppage time owing to the fact that Chelsea captain John Terry had been knocked out accidentally earlier in the second-half and it was at the end of stoppage time that the real story of the match took place.

Kolo Touré Jon-Obi Mikel tussled because of some shirt-pulling, with the result being a brawl breaking out between the two sets of players. Touré and Mikel were both sent off, as was Emanuel Adebayor who had been substituted off by Arsenal towards the end of the match.

The 2017 FA Cup Final


The rematch of the 2002 FA Cup final came fifteen years later and saw both clubs knock out one of the Manchester-based teams on their way to the showpiece event.

Arsenal had defeated Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City 2-1 in the semi-final, whilst Chelsea had neaten the cup holders Manchester United in the quarter-final before beating fellow Londoners Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final.

Given that the last time the two clubs had faced each other in a cup final was in the so-called Snarling Cup Final ten years previously, many expected it to be a fiery affair.

There was no difference in the Arsenal dugout, with Arsene Wenger still an ever-present at that stage, but José Mourinho had vacated Stamford Bridge for the second-time a couple of years before and it was Antonio Conte who was leading the Chelsea team.

The Gunners were hoping to continue their excellent form in the competition, with this being their twentieth appearance in an FA Cup final and their third in four seasons.

Despite increasing unrest from sections of the Arsenal support over Wenger’s decision to remain as the club manager, it was the Gunners who were the most dominant early on. They took the lead after just four minutes thanks to Alexis Sánchez, hitting the post twice in the remainder of the first-half thanks to Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck.

Less than fifteen minutes into the second-half and Chelsea were down to ten men when Victor Moses was shown a second yellow card for diving. Even so, the Blues equalised with fifteen minutes left when Diego Costa scored. Aaron Ramsey ensured Arsenal would be taking the FA Cup trophy home again just three minutes later, however, when he headed in Olivier Giroud’s cross.

Personalities That Made This Rivalry

Whilst the clubs have played each other often enough to ensure that there have been plenty of fiery moments over the years - see 2007 League Cup final for details - there’s no question that it is the personalities that have lit up the rivalry time and again. Here’s a look at some of those from the modern era:

José Mourinho & Arsene Wenger


Portuguese manager José Mourinho has always been a controversial figure in football, essentially forcing referee Anders Frisk to retire and go into hiding when the then-Chelsea manager’s criticism of him resulted in him receiving death threats, for example.

Later in the same year he described Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as a ‘voyeur’ because of what he saw as the Frenchman’s ‘obsession’ with Chelsea. It was the start of a long-running feud between the two men, constantly stoked by Mourinho and his apparent dislike of the Arsenal manager.

Even when Mourinho left Chelsea he still liked to talk about Wenger on a regular basis, and vice-versa. It was during his two spells at Stamford Bridge that Mourinho’s attempts to do Wenger down really took hold.

In 2014, for example, after returning to Chelsea the previous year, the Portuguese boss referred to his Arsenal counterpart as a ‘specialist in failure’. The two managers also clashed when Chelsea won 2-0 in 2015, with Wenger saying afterwards that he had been ‘provoked’.

Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole at Chelsea
Ashley Cole by Warrenfish, Wikimedia Commons

Another string to the bow of the Wenger and Mourinho feud comes in the form of Ashley Cole, who met with José Mourinho to discuss a possible transfer to Chelsea whilst still under contract at Arsenal in 2005. It resulted in a £200,000 fine being issued to the Portuguese manager.

Considered by many to be the best English left-back at the time, Cole had been part of the Arsenal team that had gone unbeaten in the 2003-2004 season.

Unhappy at his contract situation with the Gunners, however, Cole had been looking to move to Stamford Bridge as early as January 2005.

The transfer eventually happened on deadline day 2006, with the English defender then becoming the subject of abuse any time the two teams met.

Whilst many other players have appeared for both clubs over the years, including George Graham, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka, Ashley Cole is the one that represents the shift of fortunes between the two sides because of the arrival of Abramovich’s money to Stamford Bridge.

That, combined with the constant war of words between José Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, helped to stoke a rivalry between the two sets of supporters that push the derby of the North and West London clubs into the territory of being very much worth watching.