In a top-four race defined by stumbles and self-destruction, it was almost inevitable that what was once the Premier League’s greatest rivalry would descend into pure pantomime. There were punctuating moments of class – the grace and guile of Bukayo Saka that led to two goals, the certain instinct of Cristiano Ronaldo who pulled one back – but the prevailing reality was two defenses playing Russian roulette, except their chambers were full and the bullets were shot with relentless precision into their own feet.
That has been the story of Arsenal and Manchester United’s seasons, of stuttering rebuilds and steady implosions, and the stakes here only seemed to ignite the stick of dynamite underneath them. There were defensive mishaps galore, penalties mindlessly conceded, VAR decisions decided by millimetres and tempers blown out of proportion, all played out to a rhythm of unremitting panic. This was far removed from the glory days of old, but it was beautifully chaotic all the same.
Against that backdrop, it wasn’t just quality but a sheer force of will that would ultimately decide this match. The fine margins rooted in spirit and confidence, luck and momentum. Arsenal’s had been restored by their victory over Chelsea earlier this week and, even if United weren’t so criminally short of desire as in their drubbing by Liverpool, there was the sense that something was always destined to hold them back.
And so with Arsenal teetering at 2-1, the break United so desperately needed continued to elude them. Ronaldo’s goal was belatedly ruled offside, Bruno Fernandes hit the post from the spot, the shoulders slowly slumped and the squad surrendered to the ground zero that awaits Erik ten Hag.
Perhaps it was fitting that it was the player who epitomizes Arsenal’s own redemption tale who ensured his side of victory. Granit Xhaka has plumbed the depths of patience and felt the sort of wrath now regularly aimed at United’s squad. Now he is at the heartbeat of the fragile optimism around the club and his terrific strike from the edge of the box ensured Arsenal of three points that will at least briefly propel them back into the top four. On the scales of balance, it was what they deserved.
Rangnick likened United’s dire need of reformation to open heart surgery earlier this week, but this was still a defense splayed over the operating table, with organs out of shape and wedged into the wrong position. Removing the artery of dysfunction in Harry Maguire did little to stem the rush of blood and, for all United’s infighting and incoherency, this was a defensive effort united in its delinquency. It barely took two minutes for the patchwork to unravel. Xhaka was afforded the time and space to pick a cross towards the back post. It didn’t matter that it was inaccurate and underhit because both Raphael Varane and Alex Telles contrived to misjudge the bounces, confounded by the new phenomenon of gravity, and the ball meandered its way to Saka at the back post. His curling shot of him was tipped away by David De Gea but fell straight into the path of Nuno Tavares, and even the calamity prone full-back could n’t miss with his weaker foot from such close range.
It was the sort of comedy of errors that now looms with crushing inevitability for Rangnick’s side. Thankfully in his case, Arsenal are subject to moments of equally spectacular confusion. The pace of Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho regularly exposed Arsenal’s second-choice and second-rate full-backs, but it was Aaron Ramsdale who did his best to incite panic. His goal kick from him was fired straight into the path of Scott McTominay, who played in Fernandes and the Portuguese should have equalized.
Before Arsenal could inflict any more danger upon themselves, United reliably rose to the task. The chance was created by Martin Odegaard’s deft ball to Saka in the box but it was the fight of Diogo Dalot that proved decisive. He shoved Saka in the back and while Eddie Nketiah’s goal was ruled offside, the play was pulled back for a penalty and Saka showed the same cool disposition from the spot as he did against Chelsea.
Even at 2-0, with United ripe for another unraveling, nothing felt secure. There was no airbag capable of stopping the match from veering off course. That was best illustrated by Cedric Soares, who almost conceded a penalty for tripping over the ball in his own box and landing on it with his hand and then managed to slice a clearance out of Ramsdale’s arms under no apparent pressure. And when United did respond, with Ronaldo scoring his 100th Premier League goal, it was as much a credit to Arsenal’s lackluster defence. Three players had the Portuguese surrounded but were shoved aside with astounding ease for Ronaldo to seize on Nemanja Matic’s cross and fire in at the back post.
Perhaps United will leave the Emirates feeling aggrieved. Tavares, Arsenal’s reliable agent of chaos, flung his arms wildly in the air at a corner and could have few complaints when a penalty was awarded. But after Fernandes hit the outside of the post, the malaise felt familiar and contagious, as though the script had already been written. Ronaldo was ruled offside so narrowly after he thought he’d equalized and Dalot hit the post as Arsenal’s defense became stretched beyond any sort of recognizable shape. Fate refused to budge.
The gulf in class wasn’t great, but it is the intangibles such as togetherness and luck that can emerge from the chaos on afternoons like these. United closer resembled the Arsenal of recent years, condemned to fall agonizingly short and recede into acrimony. Arteta can reasonably, although not always convincingly, claim to have carried Arsenal into the next phase of that rebuild now.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.