There is still half a season left and yet, already, for Arsenalthere is a sense of a title showdown.
Manchester City could be five points adrift after playing one more game (Arsenal can be allowed a couple of slips), but no one at the Emirates is unaware of City’s advantages in terms of squad and resources; everyone knows how important it is to maintain the cushion and keep up the momentum. And that’s why it was so vital that Eddie Nketiah, having missed a chance that could have given Arsenal victory, guided the winner in the last minute.
The blatant facts are these: that Nketiah scored twice as Arsenal beat manchester united, 3-2, and that Arsenal reached the middle of the season with 50 points. Newcastle in third and United in fourth are 11 points behind. But the facts don’t really give the whole picture. This was an extraordinary match, of great quality and even greater drama, in which United played extremely well and yet Arsenal deserved to win. But, up to 90the minute, it seemed to be a game of frustration. Arsenal, in the last quarter of the game, were magnificent, gradually increasing the pressure until finally United cracked.
Until that last minute, though, the temptation had been to see Nketiah as an unlucky striker, one who seems doomed to take big saves from goalkeepers. It happened in Arsenal’s equalizer against Newcastle when Nick Pope denied it with a fine late block, and it seemed to have happened again in the 84th minute when David de Gea ducked to parry his shot after the ball had fallen on him from a corner. Could it be that there is a slight lack of precision in Nketiah’s finisher? Or is he just unlucky? It was possible then to imagine a future in which Arsenal would not win the league and he and many fans would worry about the two missed chances and four slipped points.
However, if that’s their future, it won’t be this game they think about. Oleksandr Zinchenko crossed, Martin Ødegaard fired a half shot as Fred slid in and Nketiah reacted cleverly to loop the ball past Gea. Doubts vanished and the Emirates reverberated to the sound of the Arsenal crowd chanting: “Eddie! Eddie! He’s an unlikely hero, he’s only playing because of Gabriel Jesus’ injury, but he’s used the opportunity excellently; many titles won are inspired by unlikely heroes.
United have been the only team to beat Arsenal this season and have been in great form recently. Even with Casemiro suspended, this seemed like a great test. And Arsenal outclassed him, all the more impressive because he had to work so hard to do it. Despite the excellence of their game this season, perhaps the biggest difference at this Arsenal from previous seasons is their mentality.
However, this began as another chapter in the renaissance of Marcus Rashford. After a couple of years of stagnation, without the help – psychological or tactical – of the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, he looks strong again, capable of operating on his preferred left side, cutting the field with his right foot. That’s how he got the first goal here, with a 25-yard low shot past Aaron Ramsdale. It’s one of Rashford’s great gifts that he is able to generate significant power with limited back lift, the result being that a partially blind Ramsdale barely flinched before the ball went past him.
Previous iterations of Arsenal might have missed that, particularly knowing that Manchester City had come within two points by beating Wolves earlier in the afternoon. But this Arsenal have self-confidence and drive. And this United is still not as safe as expected. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was caught by the Arsenal press and led to a corner, which was worked carefully before Granit Xhaka crossed Nketiah to head in the equalizer.
From then on, Arsenal looked like the better team, but after an all-round brilliant Bukayo Saka had put Arsenal ahead with a low shot that sliced in from the right, Lisandro Martínez equalized with a deftly elevated header after that Ramsdale collided with Takehiro Tomiyasu while trying to claim a corner. Once again, however, Arsenal continued to push forward, with Saka having a deflected effort against the post well before the late drama.
There is still a long way to go, and City will be unforgiving opponents, but Arsenal are now starting to really believe, and on the basis of this performance, rightly so.