by Charles Brody – No Premier League-era rivalry has been as significant or dramatic than that of Manchester United v. Arsenal. The two sides were synonymous with the early years of the top flight’s new format, winning 11 of the first 12 Premier League titles between them from 1992-2004, along with eight FA Cups in that same period. As the popularity of English football exploded in the 1990s, the world bore witness to a rivalry fueled by bitter competition, enmity, and violence that often overshadowed the play itself. And while Sir Alex made history with a cabinet full of trophies, Wenger was left to relish in his few but very bright moments of success.
The rivalry produced few matches of note before the 1980s. United’s thrilling 5-4 victory in 1958 is remembered largely for the Munich Air disaster five days later that claimed eight of the “Busby Babes.” The two produced an incredible match in the 1979 FA Cup Final that would be known as the “Five Minute Final.” United waited until the 86th and 88th minutes to come back from 2-0 down to equalize, only for Arsenal to snatch back the trophy with a 90th minute strike.
The rivalry heated up in the ‘80s, fueled in part by Norman Whiteside’s smashing volley to win the 1983 FA Cup semi-final. Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager at United in 1986 and would go on to become the most successful coach in English history. Just a year after the Scot’s arrival was when he himself maintains that the rivalry began, in a match in January 1987 when David Rocastle saw red for a retaliatory challenge on the same Whiteside who broke Arsenal hearts in ’83. In 1989 United won by a 4-1 rout, significant as it helped prevent Arsenal from defending their title.
The consensus is that the rivalry well and truly began during the epic mid-match brawl of October 1990. Nigel Winterburn took exception to a tackle by Denis Irwin, and when he returned the favor with interest it sparked a 21-man melee that resulted in several fines, suspensions, and the unprecedented docking of points from the league table. Arsenal would claim the league that year but lose out in the League Cup after a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of United and Lee Sharpe’s hat-trick.
Sir Alex owned the Premier League right from its inception in 1992-93, masterminding his club to an astounding seven of nine titles. Perhaps slowed only by the arrival of a worthy counterpart in 1996 when Arsene Wenger was appointed at Arsenal, the two immediately clashed and added a fascinating off-the-field element to the rivalry. Club legends Ian Wright and Peter Schmeichel’s ugly confrontations the following spring may have reflected the animosity between the managers. Ferguson had spoken openly about Wenger, calling him a “novice” who “doesn’t know anything about English football.” The Frenchman made the Scot eat his words the following season by beating United 1-0 at Old Trafford en route to winning the domestic double.
The next three league titles, however, belonged to Manchester United, including a historic treble in 1999 that featured one of the greatest matches in FA Cup history. A rule change meant that it was the last semi-final replay in the tournament’s history, and it kicked off with a stunning David Beckham curler, before Dennis Bergkamp equalized, saw his penalty saved by Schmeichel late on, and in extra time Ryan Giggs produced a glorious run and finish that will forever be remembered as one of the greatest ever cup goals. It was simply United’s year.
The early 2000s were the golden age of classic matches between these two clubs. 2001 began with Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke tearing Arsenal apart with a 6-1 rout, but it was Sylvain Wiltord’s dramatic winner at Old Trafford of all places that clinched Wenger’s second double at the helm for the Gunners. When Sir Alex insisted that his side played the best football, Wenger did nothing to cool the sentiment between the two clubs by quipping, “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.”
Then it was Arsenal’s time to shine, as the “Invincibles” achieved the impossible in 2004 by winning the league while remaining unbeaten for the entire season, but they nearly came undone at a 0-0 stalemate dubbed “The Battle of Old Trafford.” Martin Keown had given up a penalty deep into stoppage time, but the usually reliable Ruud van Nistelrooy crashed his spot kick against the crossbar, cue pandemonium as the dejected Dutchman was taunted by a very fired-up Keown before being mobbed by a jubilant Arsenal. Van Nistelrooy redeemed himself the following season by converting a controversial penalty to halt the Gunners’ unbeaten streak at 49 matches in “The Battle of the Buffet.”
Among the memorable encounters between in the clubs in 2004-05, the League Cup quarter final was infamous for a late Robin van Persie tackle on Kieran Richardson that triggered another large-scale confrontation. That was also the season of United’s 4-2 win notable for the footage of Roy Keane being separated from Patrick Vieira in the tunnel before the match. United continued to dominate Arsenal in the league, and it was largely frustration that caused Wenger to lash out at the media regarding their treatment of Sir Alex, saying “he does what he wants and you are all at his feet.”
Arsenal did best United in the 2005 FA Cup final, although being the first ever to be won on penalty kicks and the first scoreless since 1912, it was hardly anything to write home about. Wenger openly admitted he was forced to play an “ugly” game designed to reach a shootout and that Arsenal were “lucky” to win after being outmatched by the likes of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s 12 goals in his last 13 #PremierLeague starts for @theowalcott. #AFCvMUFC #Theo A photo posted by Arsenal Official (@arsenal) on
Sir Alex hit his stride again as Manchester United claimed another “three-peat” of titles late in the 2000s, including clinching the title in 2009 with a win over Arsenal. Twice that season United proved the gulf between the sides, winning 4-0 in the cup and 4-1 on aggregate in the Champions League semi-finals.The rivalry continued to favor the club from Manchester as the league went to United in 2011 despite Arsenal’s first win over their rivals since 2008, and then in the fall of that year a stellar performance from Rooney and Ashley Young handed Arsenal a shocking 8-2 loss, the Gunners’ heaviest league defeat in 84 years.
The numbers betray the glaring one-sidedness of the rivalry: United’s 62 total honors dwarf Arsenal’s 42, and the Red Devils have 93 head-to-head wins compared to 79. However in recent times even United has faced stiff competition for the title, and with the emergence of other Premier League powers the rivalry has cooled somewhat. But with clashes between the likes of Neville and Reyes, Rooney and Pires, Gallas and Nani, Campbell and Solskjaer, and Ronaldo and Henry, the history between these two clubs is an unforgettable part of the Premier League past. And if the past has taught us anything, it’s that these two teams usually serve up a tasty offering.