The Arsenal F.C.–Manchester United F.C. rivalry is a notable rivalry in English football as both clubs are recognised as having great history and traditions.Although the two clubs have frequently been in the same division as each other since 1919, the rivalry has largely arisen since around 1990. Many of the clashes in recent times between the two teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s have been due to the teams being fierce rivals for the Premier League and FA Cup. There is also enmity between English football’s longest serving managers, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, and their former club captainsPatrick Vieira and Roy Keane. The rivalry has been noted for on-field trouble, particularly the contests in 1990, culminating in 2003 and 2004.
In recent years with Arsenal being less competitive, the rivalry has diminished somewhat according to former Arsenal player Lee Dixon, while Sir Alex Fergusonhas also stated that the two teams have cooled from those previously “heated” exchanges.
A particularly memorable match between the two sides came on 1 February 1958, when they met in a league fixture at Highbury – the last league game that United played before the Munich air disaster five days later, which claimed the lives of eight of their players and saw two other players injured to such an extent that they never played again. United won the game 5–4, with goals from Tommy Taylor (twice),Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet. Five of the United players who would lose their lives as a result of crash took to the field in the game – captain and full-back Roger Byrne, right-half Eddie Colman, centre-half Mark Jones, left-half Duncan Edwards and centre-forward Tommy Taylor.
Although the two clubs had previously contested many important matches, such as the 1979 FA Cup Final, the rivalry is generally perceived to have begun with a notorious match at Old Trafford on 20 October 1990, which resulted in both clubs being docked points in the 1990–91 First Division. Alex Ferguson has stated that he believes that the rivalry predates this by a few years, however, to a match in January 1987 when David Rocastle was sent off for retaliating against a foul by Norman Whiteside.
Another high profile clash came more than 20 years later, in the final of the FA Cup on 12 May 1979. A 100,000-strong crowd saw Arsenal take a 2–0 lead in the first half thanks to goals from Brian Talbot andFrank Stapleton, and with just five minutes left on the clock their lead was still intact. Then, in the 86th minute, Gordon McQueen pulled a goal back for United, and two minutes later they equalised with a goal from Sammy McIlroy. However, barely a minute after United equalised, Arsenal’s Alan Sunderland scored a last-gasp goal to win the cup 3–2 for Arsenal.
1989 to 2009
On 19 August 1989, at the beginning of Alex Ferguson’s fourth season as Manchester United manager (and with the club still yet to win any silverware under his management), defending league champions Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford for the first league game of the season. United won 4–1 with goals from Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Brian McClair and new signing Neil Webb, with Arsenal’s consolation goal being scored by David Rocastle. Arsenal finished the season fourth in the league with 62 points, putting them 17 points adrift of champions Liverpool. Although United had a disappointing season in the league, finishing 13th (five points and five places clear of the relegation zone), they ended the season as winners of the FA Cup.
In 1990–91, Arsenal won the second of their league titles under the management of George Graham, losing just one of their 38 league games all season. They sealed their title on 6 May 1991, just before the kick-off in their league game against United at Highbury, which they went on to win 3–1. Their title was confirmed without kicking a ball as their last remaining challengers Liverpool had been defeated byNottingham Forest earlier in the day. The season had already seen two high profile clashes between United and Arsenal – one being the ill-tempered league clash at Old Trafford on 20 October, the other in theFootball League Cup just over a month later. The two clubs were drawn to play at Highbury in the fourth round tie on 28 November 1990. United won the tie 6–2, with 19-year-old winger Lee Sharpe scoring a hat-trick.
Another key point in this rivalry was during the 2003–04 Premier League season. During this year, Arsenal went on to win the league with an unbeaten record. They were labeled as “The Invincibles” and during their first game with Manchester United, they drew 0–0 at Old Trafford in a match dubbed the “Battle of Old Trafford“. Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira was sent off in the 80th minute for two bookable offences and in second half stoppage time, Gunners defender Martin Keown brought down United’s Diego Forlán in the Arsenal penalty area, Ruud van Nistelrooy stepped up for the spot kick but his shot rebounded off the crossbar. This was followed by scenes of jubilation from the Arsenal players, especially Martin Keown who confronted van Nistelrooy after his miss. The resulting scuffle led to another fracas after the final whistle, which ended up with four players from both sides being given yellow cards.
The next game between these two clubs was held at Highbury, which resulted in a 1–1 tie. At the end of the season, Arsenal ended with 90 points while Manchester United finished with 75 points in the third position. Arsenal eclipsed Manchester United and truly began a hatred between the two clubs. Even famous arguments and fights occurred between players, such as Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. Arsenal went on to hold a national record of 49 games unbeaten, which was ended by a game with Manchester United. This game was later called “Battle of the Buffet“. This match was a huge catalyst in the ongoing rivalry of these two clubs.
The 2005 FA Cup Final, between the two sides, was the first time in the competition’s history that the final was decided on a penalty shoot-out. Arsenal beat United 5–4, following a goalless draw after extra time. Arsenal forward José Antonio Reyes became the second player in Cup Final history to be sent off, following his second yellow card near the end of extra time.
With Chelsea’s back-to-back Premiership titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06 under José Mourinho, the United-Arsenal rivalry has cooled somewhat. United manager Alex Ferguson was heard remarking before the 6 May 2007 game between Arsenal and Chelsea that he was rooting for “The Gunners”, a game where Arsenal held Chelsea to a draw which clinched the title for United.
In December 2010, United manager Alex Ferguson made a personal plea to the United fans to no longer sing a “sick” chant at Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, as those kind of chants from fans were considered an embarrassment to Manchester United. With both teams going for the Premier League title in May 2011, Arsenal won their first game against Manchester United since November 2008, to leave United just three points ahead of Chelsea and six ahead of Arsenal going into the final three games of the season. Nevertheless, United won the league, nine points ahead of Chelsea and twelve points ahead of Arsenal.
In August 2011, Arsenal suffered their heaviest league defeat in 84 years as they lost 8–2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. Arsenal had not lost a league game by such a margin since 1927 when they lost 7–0 to West Ham United in the old Football League First Division. This was also the first time they had conceded eight goals in a game since 1896, when they lost 8–0 to the now defunct Loughborough F.C. in the old Football League Second Division.
In August 2012, then-Arsenal captain Robin van Persie transferred to Manchester United after stating that he would not renew his contract with Arsenal. Van Persie was in incredible form, after years of being very injury prone. It was speculated that he would move to a club overseas, as a sign of respect for his former club, but eventually, he controversially signed for Manchester United.
In recent years, Wenger has publicly paid tribute to Ferguson’s long success with United, saying “I don’t remember anybody else being at the top, top level for such a long time. In some ways it is scary as well because you think when this guy leaves the club, no matter of the quality of who comes in after him, it will be a huge hole. The club will be destabilised even if the guy who comes after him is top quality because the print of everything, the life of everything, revolves around Ferguson so much at Manchester United. He has to be immortal so the club doesn’t suffer! His commitment is always there, you never feel that his commitment is weakened. What I admire maybe the most in him is his forward-thinking. He is always ready to move with the times and never speaks about what he has done before. He knows when to renew the team, when you have to make changes, and that is exceptional because you can sometimes be a little bit lazy when you have so much success. He’s never been like that, he’s always on his toes and he can renew what is needed, when it is needed. It is a job where you need to dedicate your life to football and Ferguson has done that and that deserves massive respect. He has won absolutely everything and, of course, that is something exceptional.” Ferguson also defended Wenger as indispensable to Arsenal and being correct to sell Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri, saying “I would like to know who is going to replace him. The work he has done in the 15 years he has been at the club is the best in Arsenal’s history. Yes, he has not won a trophy for six years but what does that mean? The quality of his side has not been reduced. The competition is far greater now. When Arsenal and ourselves were going head-to-head, that went on for about eight years. It is a bit unfair of course, but who understands fairness and unfairness today? It is quite a cynical world. Supporters are far less easy to please than they were 20 years ago. But Arsenal answered everybody back on Wednesday [beating Udinese to qualify for the Champions League]. A lot of people thought they would go out. I didn’t. I thought they would win it. The game on Sunday will be another stepping stone for them.”