Arsenal and Manchester United gave us a brilliant game of football, showing the gulf in class between contenders and pretenders after Saturday’s slog fest between Liverpool and Chelsea.
Much of the build-up to this match was about Casemiro – who couldn’t play after picking up a suspension during the week. In fact, it was the absence of another Brazilian who had the biggest impact. Gabriel Jesus’ injury has opened the door for Eddie Nketiah, whose brace won a pulsating game for Arsenal. Jesus might not get back in this side when he is fully fit…Anyway, Casemiro was unavailable and many expected Martin Odegaard to have the freedom of north London and Arsenal did do a good job of finding him and Gabriel Martinelli in between the lines, but the Norwegian playmaker was uncharacteristically sloppy at the start of the game. Having said that, the hosts would go forward at every possible opportunity and started on the front foot, until United took the sting out of the game and did not just grow into it, but set the pace of it.
It immediately had the feel of a top-of-the-table clash. United were pressing high and effectively, as were Arsenal; both teams were careful in possession but it was not cagey. We had a potential classic on our hands.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was dealing with Martinelli well. Luke Shaw was all over Bukayo Saka like a rash with the Gunners winger unable to be in possession without having his back to goal and his England teammate all over him.
The narratives were aligning themselves nicely. Arsenal were picking up the ball where Casemiro would have been. David de Gea struggled with his distribution. The wingers for both teams were seeing a lot of the ball and Marcus Rashford continued his incredible form by scoring one of his best goals of the season and his first at the Emirates.
Benjamin White has been excellent this season but always seems to struggle whenever faced up against Rashford. This was the case once again on Sunday as he was booked for a very poor challenge on the England forward before being substituted at half-time in what was a sensible decision from Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal pushed for an equaliser and got it in the 24th minute after Nketiah converted a teasing Granit Xhaka cross with Wan-Bissaka caught napping in what was a characteristically lazy piece of defending by the slide-tackling extraordinaire.
After half an hour we knew we had a brilliant game of football on our hands, a day on from Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Chelsea. Let us spare a thought for Dave Tickner, who had to muster up 16 Conclusions on an awful game of football. It was frantic, referee Anthony Taylor was letting the game flow and the players looked like they were enjoying themselves. This was Prime Barclays between two teams who used to have these sorts of matches at least twice a season, every season.
As Shaw frequently fouled Saka, the Arsenal man was getting more and more space to maraud into the box with the ball and that could only be a good thing for the hosts.
White was off and Saka made that freedom pay by blasting in an Arjen Robben-esque goal to put Arteta’s men in front for the first time against Erik ten Hag’s side this term. It looked like the Gunners were forming a shape that would be impossible to penetrate, but it was beaten, not through an open play goal, but from a set-piece. Lisandro Martinez – who Arteta wanted to sign in the summer – scored a diving header after a poor piece of goalkeeping by Aaron Ramsdale.
United were the better team after scoring until around the 75th minute. From that point, it was all Arsenal. They dominated possession and came close on a couple of occasions before Nketiah grabbed his second of the game.
With Gareth Southgate in the building, Nketiah did his England prospects no harm whatsoever. Given the current pool of striking options Southgate has at his disposal, that maiden call-up could come. There were some United hopes for an offside, but the flag did not go up and VAR did not see anything wrong with the goal. We had a last-minute winner, putting the cherry on top of this Premier League classic.
You could tell United were missing Casemiro. You could not tell Nketiah is Arteta’s second-choice striker. He won Arsenal the game. A game that was an absolute classic, reminiscent of the Gunners’ 3-2 win against Liverpool earlier this season.
Arsenal put a huge dent in the Red Devils’ title hopes and picked up a crucial three points to go five points clear of Manchester City and 11 ahead of United with a game in hand. I wonder if Gary Neville still thinks Arsenal will finish third…
Fifty points after 19 games is absolutely outstanding from a team that nobody expected to be in a title race. They are on course for 100.
Sunday’s game was an important, new, chapter, in the best rivalry in Premier League history. There will be more of this to come. You have to take your hat off to Arteta, who has transformed this team and tried endlessly to get Nketiah to stay at the Emirates. The process has been trusted and Arsenal are reaping the rewards. This is their best-ever start to a season. Better than the Invincibles, for crying out loud.
Ten Hag deserves a lot of credit for making this game an all-timer. He has made this team annoyingly likable and incredibly well-drilled. Neville jumped the gun with his prediction after United won the Manchester derby. He almost did not do the job Ten Hag is doing any justice. His former side are ahead of schedule and title talk should be ignored. That will come. And so will crucial, nail-biting, matches between Arsenal and Manchester United in 2023-24.