Arsenal v Liverpool Rivalry & History

Arsenal v LiverpoolArsenal and Liverpool are two of the most successful English sides domestically, with 13 and 18 League titles respectively. Only Manchester United have won more. There is a similar patter with the FA Cup, a trophy which Arsenal have won thirteen times, more than any other club. Liverpool also have a strong record in the competition with 7 FA Cups to their name.

As you would expect with all this success, these two teams have met in massive games going right the way back through the years. The most famous of which came in May 1989 when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield in the final game of the season to pip their rivals to the title, with Michael Thomas scoring the crucial goal in injury time. This game more than any other cements the rivalry between these huge clubs.

Map of Liverpool & Arsenal Stadiums

Map of Liverpool & Arsenal Stadiums

About the Arsenal v Liverpool Rivalry

If you were to ask supporters of Liverpool to list the clubs that they like the least then Arsenal wouldn’t be anywhere near to the top of it. The likes of Everton, Manchester United and even Manchester City would likely crop up before the Gunners. Likewise Arsenal supporters wouldn’t rush to tell you that they consider Liverpool to be overwhelming enemies, given that there are enough clubs in London to cause them bother and they’d probably put Tottenham on the list twice. Nevertheless, there’s still enough enmity between the two clubs to include them in any list of footballing rivals.

As is so often the case with clubs at the top end of any table, it is their mutual successes that have meant that matches between the two sides are bigger than against less successful teams. Sure, Arsenal supporters will be much more riled up when Tottenham Hotspur come to town than Liverpool, just as followers of the Merseyside club will save the more venomous chants for a visit from the Red Devils, but don’t think that means that there isn’t immense pleasure taken from a victory when they go head-to-head. Let’s have a look at the rivalry from its beginning, exploring the most noteworthy matches that they’ve shared over the years.

The Early Years

In the modern era, Arsenal versus Liverpool is a match that has offered some genuinely thrilling encounters. They’re worth building up to, however, and there’s no better place to start than in the first match that the two teams played against each other on the twenty-eighth of October in 1893. At the time Arsenal were known as Woolwich Arsenal and hosted the Merseysiders at their home in South London, with the Gunners not due to move to the northern part of the city until 1913. Liverpool ran out 5-0 winners in the match, competed in the Second Division that Arsenal had only just joined, becoming the first club from London to do so.

The teams wouldn’t meet for a top-flight fixture for another twelve years, at which point the Gunners got their revenge with a 3-1 win on the second of September 1905. Since then the two sides have enjoyed success at their own rate, with Arsenal being the more dominant of the two in the 1930s, for example, winning their first First Division title in 1931 and then managing it four more times before play ceased on account of the Second World War. Liverpool, on the other hand, had enjoyed league success for the first time in 1901 and won it a couple of times in the 1920s too. It was the 1970s when the Reds hit their stride and the 1980s when they were almost entirely dominant, though it’s worth noting that Arsenal picked up a title win in 1971 and then again in 1989, with the latter being one of the most famous games in their history.

May 26th 1989

It’s impossible to make any mention of the rivalry between Liverpool and Arsenal without discussing the match that took place on the twenty-sixth of May 1989. The two teams had been going at it hammer and tong all season long, knowing that they were the dominant forces in English football at the time. If you’re not sure that’s true then consider this: Liverpool won the title at Arsenal’s expense in 1973 and in the sixteen seasons that followed there was only one year when they didn’t either win the title or finish second. That was in the 1980-1981 season and even then Arsenal finished third.

It’s entirely fair to point out that it was the Merseyside club that were the dominant team, but George Graham had rebuilt the Gunners and they managed to take the defending champions right to the wire. It just so happened that the fixture list had thrown up an Arsenal trip to Anfield on the final day of the season, with the hosts sitting three points clear of the visitors and with a better goal difference. The key point, though, is that their goal difference was only better by two and Arsenal had scored more; the rules of the league at the time said that if the goal difference was the same then goals scored would be the deciding factor. The Gunners had a clear mission on Merseyside: beat Liverpool by two goals or more.

The first half past without any major incidents, with the exception of the fact that Liverpool’s top scorer Ian Rush had to be substituted off after just over half an hour with a groin strain. Not that Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s manager, was overly concerned; he had Peter Beardsley on the bench that he could send on in the Welshman’s place. 0-0 at half-time suited Liverpool far more than it suited Arsenal, but things were to change seven minutes after the restart when Nigel Winterburn whipped in a free-kick that Alan Smith headed past Bruce Grobbelaar in goal for the Merseysiders. The rest of the match went by as Liverpool will have hoped, seeing Arsenal attacks smothered and countered by the Reds.

As the clock ticked around to the ninety minute mark, Arsenal’s Kevin Richardson went down with an injury as Steve McMahon informed his Liverpool teammates that there was just one minute left. As it happened, the injury to Richardson meant that there was actually another two and a half minutes to be played, during which Liverpool did their best to time-waste. Arsenal, however, had one more attack left in them and when Alan Smith headed the ball on Michael Thomas was able to latch onto it. Steve Nichol tried to get the ball off him but instead Thomas escaped his tackle and slotted the ball past the onrushing Grobbelaar. Thomas would later admit in an interview that he doesn’t even like watching the goal back for fear he’ll be tackled!

It was one of the most dramatic finales ever to the top-flight, bearing in mind that the league season hadn’t even gone to the last day of a campaign for forty-seven years. Back then Arsenal were also involved, losing 6-1 to Manchester United at Old Trafford, so this outcome was far more satisfying to all involved. That Arsenal were seen as outsiders for the competition made the victory all the sweeter for them, although the entire season was overshadowed by the events at Hillsborough Stadium on the 15th of April; ninety-five Liverpool supporters died in a crush at the Leppings Lane end of the ground with another later dying in hospital in what is the worst sporting disaster to occur on English soil. The Reds had won the FA Cup just six days before the match in a fitting tribute to those that had lost their lives attending the match in the competition against Nottingham Forest, meaning that Arsenal denied them a league and cup double.

Changing Fortunes

Liverpool won the title back the following season, finishing nine points ahead of second place Aston Villa, whilst the Gunners dropped down to fourth. The London club returned to the top in 1991, ending the season nine points clear of Liverpool in second. If you’d have asked anyone then what would happen the following year then they would have told you that one team or the other would win the following campaign’s title, but in actual fact a combination of Kenny Dalgish quitting as Liverpool manager and the rise of Manchester United after the formation of the Premier League meant that the Reds wouldn’t see the title return to Merseyside again indefinitely.

Whilst Manchester United’s unquestionably dominance at the top of the table was a big part of the reason that Liverpool slipped so far down the English football pecking order, general mismanagement of the club was always partly responsible. As United, under the management of Alex Ferguson, moved with the times and refurbished Old Trafford to make it one of the largest stadiums in the country, Liverpool remained convinced that the good times would return to Anfield if they just kept doing things the same way they always had. The club failed to modernise at a time when all of their rivals were doing, including Arsenal thanks to the 1996 appointment of a little-known Frenchman named Arsene Wenger.

No manager has been as responsible for the modernising of the Gunners as Wenger, who overhauled their dietary practices, changed the way they did fitness drills and introduced an exciting breed of attacking footballers to the club that were the antithesis of the more defensive nature of George Graham. As Liverpool were slipping down the league and struggling to get themselves back up towards the top end of the table, Arsenal were heading in the opposition direction. They broke up the domination of Manchester United by winning the title in 1998, repeating the trick four years later and then lasting the entire season without losing a match on their way to lifting the trophy again in 2004. In amongst that they also won the FA Cup four times between 1998 and 2005.

The 2001 FA Cup Final

In some ways, the only exception to the shifting narrative of Arsenal becoming the more successful of the two teams came in 2001 when they went head-to-head in the FA Cup final. It was the first time that the final of the competition had been held outside of England, which was due to the fact that Wembley Stadium was in the process of being knocked down and rebuilt. As a result, the final was held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and Arsenal had made it there by defeating Carlisle United, Queens Park Rangers, holders Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers and arch North London rivals Tottenham. Liverpool, meanwhile, had taken on Rotherham United, Leeds United, Manchester City, Tranmere Rovers and Wycombe Wanderers.

The Reds turned up at Wembley in a confident mood, given that they’d already beaten Birmingham City in the League Cup final and were due to play in the final of the UEFA Cup four days later. Arsenal, meanwhile, were there on the back of a disappointing season in which they’d failed to challenge Manchester United in the Premier League. The stage was set for it to be a cracking game of football, but in truth Arsenal dominated from an early stage. Patrick Viera was running the midfield and the Gunners were creating all of the best chances. They were incensed in the seventeenth minute when a Thierry Henry shot was cleared off the line by Liverpool’s Stéphane Henchoz, with video replays later indicating that the Swiss International had done so with his arm.

It wasn’t the last time in the match that Henchoz would touch the ball with his arm or hand, leading Liverpool supporters after the match that he handled the ball more than their goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. When Arsenal took the lead in the seventy-first minute it was the least that they deserved, with Liverpool having barely laid a glove on them. The Reds’ manager Gerard Houllier made two attacking changes as the match entered its final period, sending on Robbie Fowler and Patrick Berger. It was the latter who would end up changing the game in favour of the Merseyside club. Firstly the Reds equalised when Owen scored after Arsenal failed to clear a Gary McAllister free-kick, then, with just two minutes remaining of normal time, Berger played an inch-perfect pass into the path of Owen who shot low past David Seaman in the Arsenal net.

Liverpool would later complete their Treble thanks to a Golden Goal win over Spanish side Alavés at the Westfalenstadion in Germany, but they weren’t able to capitalise on their success until Houllier was replaced by Rafael Benitez ahead of the 2004-2005 campaign. Arsenal, meanwhile, would go on to win three of the next four FA Cups, as well as the Premier League trophies already mentioned. The future was to be a mixed period for both clubs, with sporadic trophy wins seen as papering over the cracks rather than a suggestion of more success around the corner.

Papering Over the Cracks

Liverpool’s Treble winning season of 2000-2001 was seen as a landmark moment for the club at the time, intended to thrust them back towards the top of the Premier League. However, apart from a League Cup win in 2003 things began to stagnate and it was soon felt by the powers that be at Anfield that the best option was to bring in someone new to replace Gerard Houllier in the manager’s position. That person was Spaniars Rafa Benitez, who had won La Liga in Spain with Valencia despite being up against two financial behemoths in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Arsenal, meanwhile, felt that their continued FA Cup were a sign that the club was still competitive.

Benitez enjoyed a mixed but ultimately successful debut season at Anfield, struggling in the league and getting knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round but making it to the League Cup final and winning the Champions League. The club’s victory in Europe was considered to be the best final in the competition’s history, with the Reds being 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan but responding in the second-half and ultimately winning on penalties. When they won the FA Cup the following season many believed that the return of the good times was only around the corner. At the same time, Arsenal reached the final of the Champions League in 2006 and were unfortunate not to get more out of a game that they eventually lost 2-1 to Barcelona; still giving the club’s supporters the idea that success wasn’t far away.

In the end, Liverpool came close to challenging Manchester United for the title in 2008-2009 but fell short, with boardroom strife leading to civil war amongst the supporters and protests taking place on the streets around Anfield. It was something that would culminate in a trip to the High Court before the club was able to be bought by Fenway Sports Group, wrestling control from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who had bought the club with loans and piled it with debt to the point that it nearly went into administration. Benitez was replaced by Roy Hodgson, who was never a good fit, and the Reds briefly flirted with relegation before Hodgson was replaced by Kenny Dalglish.

At Arsenal things were far less dramatic, but the club stagnated under Arsene Wenger regardless. No title challenge was forthcoming and the club seemed to settle for consistently finishing in the Champions League places. Despite Liverpool’s fall from grace, the two clubs were now doing battle over who could finish fourth rather than who could win the title, which was a sign of how far off the pace set by Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City they both were. Even when Arsenal won another three FA Cups in four seasons between 2014 and 2017, setting the record for the number of times the trophy had been won, all was not right at The Emirates and supporters began to call for Wenger’s sacking.

It is perhaps somewhat fitting that it was Liverpool that stopped Arsenal from finishing fourth in 2017, seeing them finish outside the Champions League spots for the first time since Arsene Wenger arrived at the club. The Gunners slipped to sixth the following season, finishing twelve points behind Liverpool in fourth. The performances throughout the season led to a growing call for Wenger to be sacked and in April 2018 it was announced that he would leave the club at the end of the season. Even as the greatest manager in Arsenal’s history departed, there was still a link to Liverpool in there. Little wonder, then, that the supporters of each club don’t hate each other but see the other as a worthy opponent when the two sides go up against each other.