Arsenal vs Man United: History of the Iconic Rivalry Explained

Arsenal vs Man United: History of the Iconic Rivalry Explained

One of the most storied and well-known rivalries in English football, Arsenal vs Man United is a mouth-watering fixture under any circumstances.

Both clubs have had iconic players in the past who have butted heads. Arsenal have boasted the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, while Manchester United have fielded superstars such as Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo.

We’ll take you back through the history of the rivalry in this piece – and we’ll also look at who has won the most games, which players have played for both teams and who the top individual goalscorers in the fixture are.

First of all, however, we’ll have a look at the origins of the derby – starting with the very first game between the two teams.

When was the first game between Arsenal and Man United?

The first meeting between Arsenal (then known as Woolwich Arsenal) and Manchester United (then known as Newton Heath), all the way back in October of 1894, was an instant classic – it ended in a 3-3 draw. The game set the precedent for a monumental rivalry that would develop over the years.

Why is there a rivalry between Arsenal and Man United?

Unlike the North London derby, the rivalry was not born out of geography – instead, it has always been viewed as a competitive rivalry (akin to Liverpool vs Chelsea). For a long time, particularly in the Premier League era, the two teams were in regular competition with each other for major trophies.

While it had been bubbling for several decades, the rivalry truly took off 1987. In that year, a particularly bad-tempered fixture took place. In that game, Arsenal’s David Rocastle lashed out after a foul by Norman Whiteside, sparking a minor brawl on the pitch. It would set a precedent for the following years.

When Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996, the Gunners and United soon became the two top teams in the Premier League, giving the rivalry even more edge.

The bitter rivalry bled into every part of their games – the players didn’t like each other, the managers didn’t like each other (though Wenger and his counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson have since become friends) and the fans… well that goes without saying.

The Battle of Old Trafford

The most infamous encounter between the two sides came in 2003, in a game that has since been called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’. United dominated much of the game, but the Gunners were able to soak up the heavy pressure. Seven yellow cards were dished out by referee Steve Bennett, and in the 80th minute Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira picked up a red for his second bookable offence.

The game came to a head late on, as the Red Devils were awarded a last-minute penalty – only for Ruud Van Nistelrooy to miss the resulting spot kick.

Following this, he was accosted by several Gunners players, who taunted the Dutchman for his miss. This caught the attention of his teammates, who leapt to his defence. The players could not be separated for several minutes, as they pushed and shoved one another.

Martin Keown confronts Ruud Van Nistelrooy during the Arsenal vs Man United 'Battle of Old Trafford' match in 2003

Uncharacteristically, United captain Roy Keane played the role of peacemaker during the mayhem, as he guided Van Nistelrooy away from the action to prevent him from retaliating.

Since then, the rivalry has become somewhat less heated, as both teams’ grip on the Premier League has diminished. Despite this, after an impressive 2022/23 campaign, the Gunners appear to be on their way back to the top. Can Manchester United follow suit and stoke the fires once more?

Arsenal vs Man United: which team has won the most games?

In total, the two teams have played 239 competitive fixtures against each other (with the latest meeting coming on January 22, 2023). Of these games, Arsenal have won 87, Manchester United have won 99, while 57 of them have ended in draws.

On top of this, United have also scored more goals than the Gunners in the rivalry – the Red Devils have scored 363, while Arsenal have a total of 340.

The two teams have only met twice in the Champions League, with United winning both of those fixtures.

Which players have played for both Arsenal and Man United?

Perhaps the most notable individual to have played for both teams is Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman played for Arsenal for eight years, being one of their best players upon his departure – in 2012, he made the jump to Manchester United, much to the ire of Gunners fans.

That same season, Van Persie would win the Premier League title with the Red Devils in Sir Alex’s swansong campaign – something he never accomplished during his time at Arsenal.

Another notable defector was Alexis Sanchez. When he left Arsenal to join Manchester United in 2018 for a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Chilean attacker was arguably the Gunners’ best player – once again, his departure sparked an uproar within the Arsenal fanbase.

Despite this, Sanchez could not replicate his excellent Arsenal form during his stint in Manchester. For the Gunners, Sanchez scored 60 goals in 122 games, while for United he could only muster three in 32, before moving to Inter Milan.

The full list of players who have turned out for both teams is as follows: David Herd, Ian Ure, George Graham, Frank Stapleton, Viv Anderson, Andy Cole, Robin Van Persie, Alexis Sanchez, Paddy Sloan, Jimmy Rimmer, Brian Kidd, Jim Leighton, David Platt, Mikael Silvestre, Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Arsenal vs Man United: who are the top goalscorers in the fixture?

Overall, the top goalscorer in the Arsenal vs Manchester United derby is Wayne Rooney – the former Evertonian has scored 12 goals in this fixture.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s top goalscorer in the rivalry is Thierry Henry: the legendary Frenchman netted nine times in 23 games against the Red Devils while in a Gunners shirt.

From the two teams, the player who has made the most appearances is Ryan Giggs. All in all, the former Wales international played 50 times in the fixture.

Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson

I have worked for NationalWorld since August 2021 - before then, I was a freelance journalist, writing for numerous publications. From 2023, I have been a part of the ever-growing NationalWorld Sports Network.