Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Manchester United this afternoon at the Emirates has likely ended United’s hopes of Champions League qualification once and for all. It is a testament to the strength of the United brand that anyone thought they were still in with a shout before this game. For what it’s worth, their performance here was a night-and-day improvement from their timid collapse at Liverpool. But in a week where Erik ten Hag was announced as the next man expected to restore former glories to Old Trafford, the scale of the task ahead was demonstrated by a series of defensive lapses in a thrilling clash.
If United were hoping to ease into this crucial game after a traumatising week, their hopes were dashed against the rocks of their own defensive failures almost immediately. Raphael Varane and Alex Telles made a meal of a cross, and the ball fell to Bukayo Saka. The England star drew a good save from David De Gea with his effort, but the Spaniard could do little to stop Nuno Tavares netting the rebound.
It is a credit to United that unlike in their meek midweek display at Anfield, they responded to adversity. A smart Cristiano Ronaldo flick-on found Bruno Fernandes, who played in Anthony Elanga. The young Swede’s shot called Aaron Ramsdale into action, and he did enough to keep it out. The ex-Bournemouth custodian was less safe moments later, when a loose kick presented Fernandes with a chance. The Portugal international’s shot was deflected behind, but Ralf Rangnick’s men had brought renewed ambition with them to North London.
Elanga was a constant threat, and he outpaced goalscorer Tavares before going down in the box. There was contact, but not enough for a meaningful penalty shout. Ronaldo then had his first crack at a 100th Premier League goal, as he sent a speculative effort over the bar. Diogo Dalot rattled that same bar from distance as the Red Devils began to pile on the pressure.
Arsenal were feeling their way back in though, mainly through the creative abilities of Martin Odegaard. Arsenal’s captain on the day flicked a clever backheel through for Eddie Nketiah, who went for power over placement and saw De Gea punch his effort clear.
That same combination prevailed again in a move that would eventually give the Gunners a two-goal cushion. Odegaard’s through-ball saw Saka ride a clumsy Telles tackle before Nketiah stuck the loose ball home. The referee took a long look at the VAR screen, considering both Nketiah’s potential offside and the possibility Telles had fouled Saka. Ultimately the goal was ruled out, but a penalty was awarded for the alleged foul. Saka himself stuck the penalty away, wrong-footing De Gea with a calm finish into the corner.
The frenetic pace of the game continued, recalling the great Arsenal-United battles of the past with barely a second passing without incident. These games were always about more than famous captains squaring off in tunnels, and this game combined attacking spirit with no shortage of needle. Almost immediately after the penalty was scored, Jadon Sancho put Arsenal under pressure with a searching run down the left. His outward pass to Fernandes saw the playmaker whip a cross in for Ronaldo, and ‘CR7’ lashed a cathartic finish into the roof of the net. The crowd had once again honoured the loss of his infant son with applause in the game’s seventh minute, and it was clear this goal was another step in the healing process for the 37-year-old.
Cristiano Ronaldo bags his 100th in the Premier League 😤
There were chances on both sides as the half wore down. Mohamed Elneny stretched De Gea with a swerving long-ranger. Telles did similar with a piledriver from the left flank. Odegaard once again tested De Gea’s credentials with a curling hit from the edge of the box. The first half had been a battle of passion, desire and attacking verve.
Having opened the scoring early in the first half, Tavares tried to repeat the feat. His close control sent Dalot sliding, but his finish was wayward. He would nearly have yet more impact on the scoreline though. The 22-year-old jumped in concert with Nemanja Matic at a set piece, with his arm absent-mindedly outstretched. Ball collided with limb and a penalty was awarded. Somewhat surprisingly, Fernandes was the Portuguese superstar to pick up the ball and walk towards the spot. Ronaldo may have regretted allowing himself to be overruled when he saw his international teammate’s strike collide with the post. For just the third time in United’ colours, Fernandes had missed a penalty.
Ronaldo did have the ball in the net soon after, but was adjudged offside, his precision finish from a looped ball over the top going to waste. The legendary forward then turned creator, playing a beautifully weighted pass out to Dalot. The full-back continued his attacking gameplan for the day, lashing in a shot that Ramsdale did brilliantly to tip onto the post.
Granit Xhaka was the unlikely source of Arsenal’s third goal. He was given untold time and space on the edge of the box to control the ball and line up the strike. The midfielder struck the ball beautifully and as it nestled in the net, the sense was palpable that the Gunners had finally done enough. United had battled from behind throughout in a competitive match, but this seemed to be the definitive watershed of Arsenal’s superiority.
United now sit six points outside the top four places, with both Tottenham Hotspur and today’s victors holding games in hand over them. Despite the improved performance, this snuffing out of their European ambitions must serve as the nadir of a difficult week. For Arsenal, it has been perhaps the finest week of their season. The dramatic win over Chelsea was followed up today by a strong performance in an exciting, end-to-end collision that recalled a time when these clashes decided titles rather than fourth place. You sense it will be a long time before these two teams duke it out for pole position, but today demonstrated that Arsenal are further along on the road back than United.
"You can't go back to your house and be satisfied."
Scott McTominay speaking from the heart.