It was a game to evoke memories of when these two clubs had the rivalry that defined English football and the destination of the Premier League title; a thrilling collision that was surely the best watch of the season so far.
Keane in the tunnel; Keown versus Van Nistelrooy; fights; flying pizza. It all felt like part of it again because, for the first time in a long time, the game had something to do with the championship race. As always, it was full of incidents from first to last; tackles fly, tempers flare. And when it was over, Arsenal had taken an adrenaline-pumping step towards their first title since 2004.
There’s no feeling like the last-minute winner and the Emirates crowd rocked to a wild beat when Eddie Nketiah appeared to deliver it. There would be a lengthy VAR check for a possible offside in the build-up, but when it was cleared the celebrations were wild. As they would be on the whistle full time. Everyone could feel the importance of the result.
New signing Leandro Trossard, as a substitute, fed Oleksandr Zinchenko down the left (the full-back would be level with Manchester United’s newest defender) and, when he fell back, Martin Ødegaard’s excellent shot . And there was Ntekiah to twist his body and go home.
The striker had already scored for 1-1, nullifying Marcus Rashford’s crier, and perhaps the greatest tribute that could be paid to him was that he made everyone forget Gabriel Jesus’ enforced absence , who was one of the players in the first part of the season. Since the restart after the World Cup, Ntekiah has scored six goals in six appearances.
Arsenal deserved to win. They played mostly on the front foot – certainly throughout the second half – and, after Lisandro Martínez scored his first United goal for 2-2, it was Mikel Arteta’s side who pushed, who refused to settle for the point. They announced the winner. When he came it was – in Arteta’s words – beautiful, electric and moving.
United were match-match opponents, with Rashford the spark; he has now scored nine of nine goals since the World Cup and 17 for the club this season. Martínez, still bandaged up after grabbing a loose elbow in the 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace last Wednesday, was a symbol of their defiance. But there were not enough around them, especially in front, while each of the concessions was marked by laxity.
United are ahead of schedule under Erik ten Hag, who said at the World Cup he considered Arsenal to be too far behind. His real goal is to finish in the top four, which he says would be “like our championship”. This would represent progress. At the time, however, it was impossible to overcome the frustration. As at Palace, United finally let the result slip away.
Arsenal’s conviction was a big part of that, along with their thirst for revenge following the 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford last September – their only league defeat of the season. What was noticeable after Rashford’s goal was the reaction from the home crowd. As Ødegaard woke up his teammates, cries of “Ars-en-al” rang out from the stands. Nobody in red saw any reason to panic.
Nketiah had a shot blocked by Raphaël Varane. Gabriel Martinelli whipped wide after Bukayo Saka took a corner kick from him. And then Ntekiah struck, entering Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s blind side to head home past Granit Xhaka’s cross.
Rashford continues to bristle with confidence and his goal followed an outrageous chop past Thomas Partey. He followed it with a firecracker past Aaron Ramsdale from outside the box.
It was breathless, thrilling duels – especially Saka versus Luke Shaw. Ben White was booked for a scissor-style challenge on Rashford; the full-back would be replaced at half-time. Arteta received a yellow card for moaning at the officials.
United had threatened first when Martínez dropped a ball over Gabriel Magalhães for Bruno Fernandes, but his touch was as disappointing as his call for a penalty after a Ramsdale brushstroke. Scott McTominay – ahead of Fred for the suspended and badly missed Casemiro – also extended the Arsenal keeper in the 29th minute after a sweeping move.
Ødegaard was once again so easy on the eyes, always attentive to the cute angle; always looking to hurt United. It was Saka, however, who put Arsenal ahead 2-1, skating inside Shaw, taking a chance and hitting the jackpot when David De Gea couldn’t get to the far corner of his net .
Back came United. Ramsdale saved smartly from the unstoppable Rashford but then erased his notebook, coming for a Christian Eriksen corner through a crowd of his own players, no one from United, and striking weakly. Martínez put his head where it needed to hurt, looping over Gabriel on the line.
But the return came Arsenal. Varane made an important tackle on Ntekiah, Eriksen blocked a shot from Ødegaard and Saka hit outside the far post with another curler. Rashford almost got a pass from Fernandes, but it was all at Arsenal now. When De Gea brilliantly saved to deny Nketiah from close range in the 84th minute, United thought they could hang on. Ntekiah had other ideas.