Manchester United v Arsenal Rivalry & History

Arsenal v Manchester UnitedAs two of England's most popular and successful clubs, there no surprise that these two teams have met in countless big football matches over the years. In addition, the north-south divide also adds to these fixtures with Manchester United based in the north-west and Arsenal in London in the south. What really ignited this rivalry however can be narrowed down to two managers regarded as greats of the game - Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

The two went head to head in some memorable clashes, and despite both moving on from managing the sides, there remains an extra edge when the two footballing giants meet. Here, we give you the lowdown on the next fixture, details of the most recent contests as well as the history of this fascinating rivalry.

Map of Manchester United & Arsenal Stadiums

Map of Manchester United & Arsenal Stadiums

About Arsenal v Manchester United: An Era Defining Rivalry

We’ve written elsewhere on this site about how rivalries can happen for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they come about because the two teams involved share the same city, such as Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers. Sometimes it’s about managers creating a rivalry that supporters follow, with Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion being a solid example of that. What we haven’t talked about much, however, is the way that some match-ups can be about more than just the bragging rights that come with winning football games.

Much as with football itself, the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal didn’t start with the advent of the Premier League. As we’ll go on to discuss in this piece, the two sides played a number of important games against each other well before 1992. Yet in many ways the rivalry between them and between Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger would define a specific era of the competition, with the two teams pushing each other on to achieve greater and greater success. Whilst it will never have the fieriness of the Merseyside Derby or the cross-county appeal of Ipswich Town versus Norwich City, matches between the Gunners and the Red Devils will always have something special about them.

Before the Premier League

As mentioned in the introduction, Manchester United and Arsenal are two sides with storied histories, meaning that they played each other numerous times before the Premier League came into existence. One such occasion occurred in 1958 and took place just five days before the Munich Air Disaster would claim the lives of eight United players and rock football on its heels. It was an entertaining game in the old First Division, with Arsenal playing at home and scoring four goals against the Red Devils. Ordinarily you’d expect that to mean that you’d pick up three points, but two goals from Tommy Taylor and one each from Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet meant that the away side returned to Old Trafford the victors.

More than twenty years later Arsenal would get their own back in another entertaining encounter, this time in the final of the FA Cup. It was the twelfth of May in 1979 when Arsenal went 2-0 in front of a sold out Wembley, maintaining the lead up until the clock struck eighty-six minutes. At that point, United got what most people thought would be a consolation goal thanks to Gordon McQueen, only for Sammy McIlroy to get an equaliser two minutes later and leave half of Wembley in shock. If the rest of the game had been entertaining enough in its own way then the supporters inside the stadium were in for a treat in those last five minutes when Alan Sunderland popped up for the Gunners to seal a 3-2 win and see the FA Cup return to Highbury for the first time since they’d beaten Liverpool eight years earlier.

The Brawl of Old Trafford

It is telling, perhaps, that one of the most famous games between the two teams took place just a year and a half before the Premier League was formed, indicating the strength of the rivalry that was still to come. The match took place at Old Trafford in October of 1990 and an almighty brawl ensued when Arsenal’s Anders Limpar and United’s Denis Irwin contested for the ball. Nigel Winterburn crashed into Irwin, resulting in both he and his teammate Brian McClair retaliating with the Gunner.

Winterburn ended up being pushed onto the advertising hoarding that ran around the pitch and what followed was a set-to that only lasted around twenty seconds but involved every single play on the pitch bar Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Seaman. In the aftermath of the match, which Arsenal won 1-0 thanks to a Limpar goal, both teams fined their own players in an attempt to appease the Football Association. It didn’t work, with the Gunners receiving a two points deduction and the Red Devils having one point taken off them. In the end it proved irrelevant, with Arsenal finishing seven points clear of Liverpool and winning the title.

The Premier League and the Arrival of Arsene Wenger

The season after the brawl of Old Trafford, Manchester United overtook their London rivals and finished second, with Arsenal coming fourth. It was to be a sign of things to come, given that the Red Devils would then go on to win inaugural season of the Premier League whilst the Gunners dropped down to tenth. In fact, whilst the rivalry between the two teams would go on to define the competition, it wasn’t until the London club appointed Arsene Wenger as their manager that they were even on Manchester United’s radar. Arsenal finished twenty-points behind the Mancunian champions in the 1993-1994 season, with that stretching to thirty-seven points the following year.

Bruce Rioch took over at Highbury ahead of the 1995-1996 season, but things didn’t work out for him despite his side’s improvement in the league in that they ‘only’ finished nineteen points off eventual title winners United. Both Stewart Houston and Pat Rice had stints as caretaker managers whilst the Gunners sought a replacement, with that replacement eventually being named as a a little-known Frenchman by the name of Arsene Wenger. He took over on the first of October 1996 and went about improving their on-field play as best he could. The building blocks were put in place that year for what was to come and the new look Arsenal improved their points tally to be a mere seven behind United in first.

The Kick-Starting of a Fierce Rivalry

Whilst the main takeaway from the 1996-1997 campaign was the fact that Arsenal had improved so much under Arsene Wenger that they were actually a respectable number of points behind the eventual title winners at the end of the season, it was a match between the two teams in February that would prove to be the spark of what was to follow. Arsenal’s forward Ian Wright went into a challenge with United’s goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel with his studs up, catching him hard. The two players confronted each other, with things continuing to be heated after the final whistle to the point that police had to step in to separate them.

Wright claimed that he had been racially abused by Schmeichel, resulting in the Football Association having a hearing into the matter and asking to speak to representatives of the two clubs. By April the two players had put the matter behind them, but it became clear that the managers of the two clubs were unlikely to send each other Christmas cards. Manchester United had appealed to the FA to extend the league season in order to help them with fixture congestion that they were suffering from as a result of their success in numerous competitions. Wenger advised against them doing so, leading to Alex Ferguson saying that he was at a side that ‘used to be a big club’ and wondering how he’d feel if he were in the same situation the following year. He had no ides how prescient that thought actually was…

Arsenal Win Their First Premier League Title

There’s an argument that you can break down Alex Ferguson’s time as Manchester United boss according to the rivalries that he endured over the years. The first came thanks to his former Liverpool nemesis Kenny Dalglish when he led Blackburn Rovers to the title at the expense of United in 1995. During the latter stages of his career the Scot would enjoy battles with José Mourinho of Chelsea and Rafael Benitez at Liverpool, but it was the ongoing tete-a-tete with Arsene Wenger that he would later admit made the Premier League the competition that it was. That rivalry began simmering in 1997 and came to the boil in 1998 when Arsenal won what was then known as the FA Carling Premiership over the Manchester club by a single point.

United had actually opened up a sizeable lead over their rivals early on in the campaign, but they suffered a number of injuries and lost some games that they’d normally be expected to win as a result. They were still nine points ahead of Wenger’s team when the two sides faced each other at Old Trafford in March, though the Gunners had three games in hand. Marc Overmars score the only goal of the game, giving Arsenal all three points and meaning that they were now just six behind and still had those games in hand. They went on to win the league with seventy-eight points compared to United’s seventy-seven, beating Newcastle United in the FA Cup final to secure the double and solidify themselves as genuine rivals to Alex Ferguson’s charges.

The 1998/99 FA Cup Semi-Final

If Ferguson heckles had been raised by Arsene Wenger becoming the first non-British manager to win the title then he’d get a period of respite before worse was to come. The Gunners beat United 3-0 in the following season’s Charity Shield, following that up with a win by the same scoreline once the Premier League campaign had got underway. Even so, United got their revenge when they won the title by same single point that Arsenal had done the year before, but it was a match in the FA Cup that really caught the imagination. The two teams met at the semi-final stage, with the first game ending goalless and a replay needed to settled the matter.

The replay seemingly had everything, when David Beckham opened the scoring before half-time and Dennis Bergkamp equalising after the break. Roy Keane was then sent off and worse was to come for United when the defending champions were awarded a penalty late on. Peter Schmeichel saved Bergkamp’s effort and as a result extra-time was needed to separated the two teams. Ryan Giggs scored one of the competition’s most memorable goals when he dribbled from the halfway line to slot home the winner past David Seaman, sending Ferguson’s men on their way towards a treble when they later won the Champions League.

United’s Grip on the League Continues Then Fades

Manchester United’s dominate on the Premier League had already been displayed plenty of times since the competition’s formation in 1992, but the manner in which they responded to Arsenal’s title win, almost as though it was a personal affront, demonstrated more than anything else that they were the true force in the 1990s and after the turn of the millennium. They won the 1999-2000 title with ease, finishing the season with ninety-one points; a full eighteen points clear of Arsenal in second. It was the manner in which they won the title for the third time that truly proved their dominance, though, including a 6-1 thrashing of the Gunners in February of 2001. When the title ended up at Old Trafford for the third time in a row, Alex Ferguson announced his plan to retire when the following campaign came to its conclusion.

Whether to unsettle him or simply as a parting shot at his French counterpart, Ferguson sanctioned Manchester United’s hierarchy to make a move for Arsenal’s midfielder Patrick Viera who was reportedly irritated at his team’s lack of activity in the transfer market. The move didn’t happen in the end but it did infuriate Wenger. Perhaps that’s what spurred his side on to doing another double, securing the league win by beating Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford in the campaign’s penultimate match. After the game Arsene Wenger described it as a ’shift of power, but when Ferguson decided not to retire and United won the title the following season that was made to look a little bit daft. Even so, there was no question that the two sides were the genuine powerhouses of the Premier League at the time, with only Blackburn Rovers stopping the two teams from sharing title wins between 1992 and 2004.

Fights and FA Cups

The 2003-2004 season would go down in history for Arsenal for all of the right reasons, though they also made the news alongside Manchester United for some of the wrong ones. The Gunners travelled to Old Trafford in September for a match that turned quite fiery quite quickly. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Viera had an altercation that led to the Frenchman being sent off for a second bookable offence, with the Dutch striker then taking and missing a penalty in stoppage time after Diego Forlán had been brought down by Martin Keown. The Arsenal players celebrated the miss as though they’d won the league, confronting van Nistelrooy in a manner that led to a fracas that resulted in six Arsenal players being given bans and the club fined £175,000.

The two teams played at Highbury in March in a game that also ended in a draw, but there was to be no draw when they went head-to-head in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park the week after their league encounter. United supporters revelled in their club’s victory, singing “Where’s your treble gone?” to the Arsenal fans who has believed their side had the chance of winning three trophies that year. The Red Devils rubbed salt into their wounds by going on to win the FA Cup, though Arsene Wenger’s side got a modicum of revenge when they won the Charity Shield 3-1 before the start of the following season. That was one manner of getting their own back, but it would be their achievement in the 2003-2004 campaign that would truly set Arsenal apart from any other Premier League winning side.

The Invincibles and the Moment they Were Beaten

Having won the treble back in 1999 and been left feeling as though he’d well and truly put Arsene Wenger in his place, Alex Ferguson was about to witness his rival achieve something that he never managed during his time in charge at Old Trafford. Arsenal went through the entirety of the 2003-2004 season without losing a single game, becoming the first team to do so during a thirty-eight game campaign. In fact, only Preston North End had also achieved this in the hostriy of English football, doing so back in 1889 when there were only twenty-two games in a season. That they managed that alone was impressive enough, but to do so in an era when Chelsea had begun splashing the cash under big-spending Roman Abramovich and United were so dominant was even more noteworthy.

Alex Ferguson was never one to let a rival hog the limelight for too long, however, so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was the Scot that brought Arsenal’s winning streak to an end. By the time they lost at Old Trafford, having been eleven points ahead of the Red Devils before kick-off, they had managed to go forty-nine league games unbeaten. It was a fiery encounter, not least of all because of a studs-up challenge from Ruud van Nistelrooy on Ashley Cole that somehow went unpunished by the referee Mike Riley. The aftermath of the match led to a moment of infamy in the Premier League when Wenger confronted Cole about his challenge, Ferguson told him to leave his player alone and then someone from Arsenal threw pizza at the Manchester United manager in a moment that was to become known in the tabloids as ‘pizzagate’.

The 2004/05 Season: League Cup and the 124th FA Cup Final

There were many other battles between the two sides, including one in the quarter-final of the League Cup just five weeks after pizzagate. Though neither side fielded a strong team, it was still a thrilling encounter that featured yet another on-pitch fracas when Robin van Persie committed a late tackle on Kieran Richardson. It finished 1-0 to Manchester United and wasn’t the last time that the two sets of players got physical with each other. When the sides came together in the league later in the season, the match referee Graham Poll had to separate Roy Keane and Patrick Viera in the tunnel before a ball had even been kicked. Despite the Gunners taking the lead, it was United who ended up as 4-2 winners when Poll blew the final whistle.

In arguably the last great match between the two sides of the Alex Ferguson era, Manchester United and Arsenal went head-to-head in the FA Cup final in May of 2005. It was the one hundred and twenty-fourth final of the tournament but was to be the first involving a penalty shootout. The match ended as a goalless draw in normal time and when neither side could find a winner during extra-time the penalty shootout format was used for the first time ever in the FA Cup. Arsenal won it 5-4, despite having been reduced to ten men when José Antonio Reyes pencilled a place for himself in the history books when he became just the second player ever to be sent off in the competition’s final.

Arsenal Fade and Ferguson Retires

Perhaps supporters of both teams would argue the toss about whether or not the FA Cup final in 2005 really was the last great match between them, but the reality is that the rivalry began to hold less sway over the outcome of the Premier League title in the aftermath of Arsenal’s Invincibles season and after the arrival of Roman Abramovich as Chelsea owner. The Russian’s financial doping of the Stamford Bridge club changed the face of football in England, winning back-to-back titles with José Mourinho as manager from 2004 to 2006. That also gave Alex Ferguson a new manager to lock horns with at a time when Arsene Wenger’s ability to strengthen the Arsenal squad was limited because of the club’s move to a new stadium.

All good eras have to come to an end, which the battle between Ferguson and Wenger did when the former retired at the end of the 2012-2013 season. There were still a couple of battles between the two warhorses, though, including a 4-1 aggregate win for Manchester United over Arsenal in the Champions League in the 2008-2009 season, as well as an 8-2 drubbing by the Red Devils at Old Trafford in 2011, which was the Gunners’ worst league defeat in eighty-four years. Alex Ferguson won the league one last time before retiring, with former Arsenal striker Robin van Persie being instrumental in that title win. van Persie and his United teammates received a guard of honour from the team that they faced in the wake of their confirmed title victory at the end of that 2012-2013 campaign. The team that they faced who had to line up for them? Who else but Arsenal.