In 1952, Manchester United lifted the league trophy for the third time in their history. The following season it was Arsenal who won the championship, so unsurprisingly any match between Matt Busby's men and Tom Whittaker's team were always keenly contested. More than 60 years on, as the history between the two teams develops, the rivalry has lost none of its passion or significance.
The first league meeting between the two sides took place on Saturday 13 October 1894 on Bank Street, Clayton (a suburb located to the east of Manchester). At the time United were known as Newton Heath, the Gunners as Woolwich Arsenal. The teams played out a 3-3 draw. Since then, they have met over 200 times, with the Mancunians edging the battle for dominance with 91 wins to the Gunners’ 79.
Statisticians also agree that the biggest ever Football League match attendance was for a match between Manchester United and Arsenal in 1948. A full house of 83,260 crammed into Maine Road to watch the game. United were sharing neighbours Manchester City's ground because Old Trafford was still recovering from bomb damage inflicted during the Second World War.
Since the advent of the FA Premier League in 1992/93, the Red Devils and the Gunners have established themselves as the two most successful sides in the English top flight. In the all-time Premiership table, the Gunners are in second place behind Manchester United, who have 13 titles and over 1,500 Premiership goals to their name.
Ferguson versus Wenger
The catalyst for the success of the two teams in recent years has been the appointment of arguably two of the most talented managers in European football: Arsene Wenger and the recently retired Sir Alex Ferguson, appointed in 1996 and 1986 respectively.
Ferguson won more trophies than any other manager in the history of English football and was in charge of Manchester United for 1,500 matches. With over a quarter of a century at Old Trafford under his belt, he is the longest serving manager in the club's history and guided the team to 13 league championships. In 1999, he became the first manager to lead an English team to the treble of league championship, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Meanwhile in London, Wenger has also become the club's most successful manager, in terms of trophies, and the longest-serving; approaching 1000 matches in the Arsenal hot seat. Wenger was the first non-British manager to win the double (league championship and FA Cup) in England, which he has managed twice, in 1998 and 2002. In 2004, he became the only manager in FA Premier League history to go through the entire season without a defeat.
There have been many classic clashes between these sides, including the FA Cup semi-final and its replay in 1999, Marc Overmars' famous goal to defeat United at Old Trafford and pull Wenger's men back into the 1998 title race, and the various titanic tussles between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
However, the strained atmosphere between the two sides, and their managers, reached its zenith in October 2004 during the now infamous 'Pizzagate' incident at Old Trafford.
It was a game which saw Sir Alex Ferguson's men end Arsenal's 49-game unbeaten sequence in the Premiership. United won 2-0 in a match that has since been nicknamed the 'battle of the buffet.' The action was tempestuous enough on the field, with former Arsenal forward and Spain international Jose Antonio Reyes reflecting: "In all my sporting life, I have never received so many kicks as I did in Manchester. It was the hardest match I have played." The game swung United's way after a disputed penalty award but it was after the match that the sparks, and the food, really flew.
In a scuffle in the tunnel between players and staff on both sides, a slice of pizza was thrown at Ferguson. The former Arsenal defender Ashley Cole describes the shock of the incident in his autobiography: "This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the face ... all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off his famous face and roll down his nice black suit!"
Three months after the event, both men promised to end their war of words, with The FA, the Premier League, the UK's Minister for Sport and even the Metropolitan Police urging the men to resolve their conflict. From 20 January 2005, it was agreed that public comments from Ferguson and Wenger will be limited to pre-match and post-match analysis of games between the respective sides.
After that, Arsenal went on a barren run, without a trophy for nine years after the 2005 FA Cup, where they defeated United on penalties. Wenger's lowest ebb, and his worst defeat in charge of the Gunners, came in August 2011 with an 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford. That represented how far the sides' rivalry had drifted since Arsenal's move to the Emirates Stadium, with United picking up ten trophies, including five Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League, since Arsenal's FA Cup win in 2005.
No player has enjoyed himself against the Gunners over the last decade more than Wayne Rooney. The England forward famously announced himself as a major talent in English football with his debut Everton goal against Arsene Wenger's side in October 2002. Since moving to Old Trafford, Rooney ended their 49-game unbeaten run in 2004 and has scored ten Premier League goals against Wenger's side. No player has scored more.
A new rival
Wenger now faces a new opponent in his longest-running club rivalry, with Louis van Gaal assuming the Old Trafford reins after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement and David Moyes's ill-fated spell in charge. The two have met before, in the 1999/2000 UEFA Champions League group stages when the Dutchman was in charge at Barcelona, with Van Gaal unbeaten thanks to a 1-1 draw and a 4-2 win. Can Wenger turn the recent tide of United dominance, or will Van Gaal continue the perfection of his predecessors?