The clashes between Manchester United and Arsenal over the past three decades have given us some of the cherishable moments in football. From their first ever match 122 years ago to Viera-Keane tunnel bust-up in 2005, we bring you a historical account of the biggest rivalries in English football.
The first time Newton Heath ever faced Woolwich Arsenal was on 13th October, 1894. The two sides, now known as Manchester United and Arsenal FC, were clubs in England's second division at that time choosing to play at United's home ground of Bank Street in Clayton. For the West Yorkshire crowd of 4000 who came to watch the League Division Two sides clash, it was not a disappointment. Robert Donaldson and Peter Mortimer scored braces for either side with the game finally ending in an entertaining 3-3 draw following the goals from John Clarkin and Henry Boyd.
After that landmark clash, both the clubs had different issues to deal with at the turn of the 20th century. With 'Woolwich' being dropped from their name, Arsenal moved out to the suburbs of North London in 1913 to battle the bankruptcy and promotion to the first division. Meanwhile Newton Heath, after renaming themselves as Manchester United, were riddled in bankruptcy until the early 1920s due to the first World War. While Arsenal were at the top of their game winning 5 league titles in the '30s, United were reduced to second division anomalies.
The fact that these two giants endured such contrasting fortunes for almost four decades is surprising. But both the teams finally came together to contest for the League Division One title in the 1947/48 season which Arsenal managed to beat their rivals with a seven-point difference. The North London club were once again successful against United by winning 4-3 when the sides met for the FA Charity Shield match in 1948 after the Manchester club won the 1948 FA Cup.
Another match that stays significant in the history is the nine-goal thriller played at Highbury on February 1, 1958. Manchester United won the match against Arsenal 5-4 through Tommy Taylor's brace. This would also be the last game for United's fabled side “Busby Babes” on the English soil as United's team flight met with a tragic accident in Munich while returning from a European tie with Red Star Belgrade, killing 22 members of the squad including players and staff.
In the 1960's, the clubs were at the opposite ends of their fortunes. United became a superpower by winning their first ever European Cup with the help of the Holy Trinity—Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best. Arsenal, on the other hand, flirted with relegation on more than three occasions during this time. It was in the 70's that the rivalry was at its coldest as Liverpool dominated the domestic football and in Europe. Arsenal were able to win the League and Cup double in 1971, while United were relegated to the second division in 1974 to get promoted the next season. The most notable clash between the two sides was the FA Cup final in 1979, famously known as the “Five-minute Final”. Arsenal led 2-0 until the 85th minute when Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy scored in the space of two minutes to pull United level. But, Alan Sunderland won Arsenal the game and their only trophy under manager Terry Neill, by scoring in the 89th minute.
It was in the early 90s, after the arrivals of David Graham at Arsenal and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, that would actually start the rivalry. In October 1990, the two sides met at the Old Trafford in the first division which showed glimpses what was going to come. Arsenal, who were already known for their extreme physical approach, resorted to fouls on United when Nigel Winterburn lunged into a tackle on United striker Brian McClair. United replied with Paul Ince taking a kick at Anders Limpar which broke out a battle between the players and the dugouts getting involved. There were only yellow cards following this but a rivalry was ignited between the sides.
With Alex Ferguson keeping his promise of “Knocking Liverpool off their f***ing perch” by winning the league titles in 1993, 1994 he came face-to-face against Arsene Wenger in 1996. The Frenchman's arrival at Highbury transformed Arsenal into a leaner, fitter fighting machine to match United at the top of the table. At the end of the 1995-96 season, United were facing a jam-packed schedule when Ferguson requested the FA to accommodate United with some much-needed rest days to ready his team for the title challenge. But Wenger spoke against the request, which would be eventually rejected, by saying “It’s wrong the league programme is extended so United can rest up and win everything,” to which Ferguson venomously replied, “He’s coming here from Japan and telling us how to run our game!”. It was Game On!
Wenger soon learnt the way to sting United at the right place, when they secured the league title at Old Trafford by beating United 1-0 on 14 March, 1998. Ferguson's men, were at one point 12 points clear at the top, but Wenger's side went 18 games unbeaten towards the end of the season to pip United to the title by one point. But United were quick to strike back at their rivals.
The Red Devils snatched the title right from Arsenal's grasp with the penultimate match of the season and then inflicting more misery on the Gunners in the iconic FA Cup semifinal. United went into the lead with David Beckham's 19th-minute goal but Dennis Bergkamp equalized and missed a last-minute penalty for Arsenal as injury time gave the rivalry one of its best moments. Arsenal could've won the match had it gone to penalties after Roy Keane's red card. But in the 107th minute, Ryan Giggs took the ball on the left wing from a Patrick Vieira's sloppy pass, danced in between four Arsenal defenders to blast the ball on to the roof of the net. Everyone remembers Giggsy's chest-hair celebration after scoring that goal. United went on to win an unprecedented treble in the 1998/99 season, but better times for Arsenal were ahead.
With both the clubs battling it out for the English supremacy, it gave us moments both on and off the pitch. When Arsenal managed to dump United out of the FA Cup in 2003, Sir Alex Ferguson, visibly angry at the loss, entered the dressing room to give David Beckham the hair-dryer treatment. But the Red Devils boss accidentally kicked a boot lying on the floor in anger, with the studs giving Beckham a cut above his eyebrow. This also marked the end of Fergie-Beckham relationship as the Englishman was offloaded to Real Madrid the following season. United managed to beat Arsenal to the title that season, but the latter came back in a fashion that no one would have ever expected.
Arsenal won the title by going 38 league games undefeated, a feat almost impossible to replicate for even the best Premier League sides, earning the name “The Invincibles”. But many would forget that United were almost a penalty away from stopping Arsenal achieving that incredible feat. With the tie in late September heading towards a 0-0 draw, United were awarded a penalty in the injury time when Patrick Vieira brought down Ruud Van Nistelrooy inside the box. Nistelrooy had the chance to win the match for United by scoring the penalty but the Dutchman hit the crossbar. Many would remember the moment when Arsenal defender Martin Keown, expressed his seething rage by roaring in the face of Nistelrooy after the miss.
Ironically, it was United who brought an end to Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten streak by winning 2-0 at Old Trafford in the following season. Fittingly enough, Nistelrooy scored a penalty in the game, while someone landed a slice of pizza on Sir Alex's face during his argument inside the tunnel with Arsene Wenger and Cesc Fabregas.
While the involvement of Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger gave the rivalry the flair it needed, the involvement of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane set the pitch on fire. Both players had combustible attitudes, were full of ambition and were captains of their respective sides which further deepened the contempt for each other. It was in the return fixture at Highbury in the 2004/05 season, that their loathing for each other spilled over. Viera provoked Gary Neville in the tunnel before the kickoff as Roy Keane to have a go at Arsenal's captain before the referee intervened. “I’ll see you out there,” were Keane's words for the big Frenchman. The Irishman was successful in seeing out the game as United won the match 4-2. Neither of the sides were able to win the title that season with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea putting a check to their eight-year long duopoly.
With the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool being able to challenge for the title, the fiercest rivalry on the break of the 21st century has simmered down over the years. Only United's 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal in August 2011 and Robin Van Persie's transfer from Arsenal to United in the summer of 2012 were the noteworthy ones.
Arsenal ended their 10 years of trophy drought by winning two back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 as United have failed to mount a proper title challenge after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013. However, there was a glimpse of the past flair returning to the tie during last season when Louis van Gaal gave a hilarious demonstration of Danny Welbeck's dive to earn Arsenal a penalty. United won the match 3-2 to avenge their earlier 3-0 loss at the Emirates. The Red Devils also put a dent to Arsenal's title challenge, by increasing the gap between league leaders Leicester City to 7 points. “Nobody knows how this defeat will impact on the title race,” grimaced Wenger after the defeat but fans knew that they had lost it. While they were unable to win the title, United managed to drag down their rivals away from it.
With the backdrop of Wenger-Mourinho rivalry, which has gotten personal over the past two years, one can expect the sparks to fly between both the managers. Despite Arsenal and United remaining at 4th and 6th in the points table respectively, both the clubs have good enough chance to challenge for the title as we eagerly for Saturday to arrive. The war of words have not yet started for this season, but one can expect either Mourinho or Wenger to stoke fires leading up to the match. Both the managers trying to down the other using harsh statements and mind games might frustrate football purists. But for a neutral, it is a moment of glee to see one of the fiercest rivalries to be reignited.