After all the focus on Erik ten Hag, and all the impressive defiance of Cristiano Ronaldo, it was a Granit Xhaka day.
That doesn’t just apply to his thunderous 70th-minute winner. It was that his personal redemption seemed such a fitting peak for a hurricane of an occasion. It was not quite that Arsenal won a “football match” against Manchester United 3-1, but that they managed to force their way through the gale-force winds of this 90 minutes.
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They do deserve credit for that resilience as they temporarily rise back into the top four, mind, which is also what made Xhaka so appropriate a decisive player. That he scored his 10th Premier League goal just three minutes after his 50th Premier League yellow card summed it all up. The match had plenty of that, and could have had so much more.
Four goals and two penalties could easily have been 10 goals and five penalties, with some red cards thrown in, not least for Bruno Fernandes.
He was fortunate not to be sent off, and was eventually taken off, after an erratic afternoon. There was no bad luck about his missed penalty when United were 2-1 down, mind. It was just poor, and reflects his declining influence right now. As with most to do with Ralph Rangnick’s team right now, though, it is at this point very difficult to divorce individual performances from the collective sense of flux at United.
They ultimately lacked that extra force – and fortune – that Arsenal had.
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Ten Hag’s appointment might have changed the feel around United, but it didn’t affect the application within the team. The defending actually got worse, and that was without the dropped Harry Maguire.
Where he had previously been the lightning rod for criticism, it was as if a shock had run through the entire back four. You could even say every one of them was someway culpable, and someway hapless, for that quick Arsenal opener.
A simple ball across the back seemed to completely confuse them, Raphael Varane throwing a leg at it before Alex Telles swung another. Nuno Tavares was then left totally unmarked after David de Gea parried Bukayo Saka’s curled effort.
This sense of raggedness just rippled through the game, and both sides. It is remarkable there weren’t many more goals and penalties in the game, although there would have been had it not been for a series of either-way decisions.
United could have been 3-1 up before Arsenal got their second, Bruno Fernandes missing a gift and Diogo Dalot smashing against the bar, during a spell that included two penalty calls. You couldn’t quite say Arsenal stood up against this given how fragile they looked, but they did persevere. Beyond Ronaldo, who put in one of his best individual displays this season in what is a trying time personally, among the few occasions when the game rose to “competent” was when Arsenal countered into space. There was conviction there, and also some craft. On 27 minutes, Martin Odegaard flicked an ingenious little pass over for Saka, that stood out all the more against the clumsiness of Telles’s challenge. Eddie Nketiah scored from an offside position, but VAR intervened and suggested referee Craig Pawson award a penalty.
For the second time in two games, Saka stepped up and finished.
It was 2-0 but the game didn’t feel in any way locked down. It was all just too open. Ronaldo signalled that with an immediate response, not least for the nature of it. Deceiving both Gabriel and Tavares, he left them flat-footed with one of his sharp darts to finish well first-time from Nemanja Matic’s ball.
It should have been the platform for a comeback. United will feel it was the platform for the comeback, given Ronaldo had another goal ruled out by the most imperceptible of offsides. And there was still Fernandes’s penalty to come.
It summed up his performance, and his year, that he ran up in such an ostentatious manner only to then send the ball off the wrong side of the post. The question will now be why Ronaldo didn’t take it.
Aaron Ramsdale, who had dived the wrong way, celebrated with raw aggression. This was what was ruling the game. It also made the nature of the winner all the more fitting.
It may also point to what comes next, as it increasingly feels like this race for the top four is going to be a battle of wills as much as a test of football teams.
The wildness of that is summed up by the fact Arsenal lost three games in a row against the most beatable of mid-table opposition, only to then recover all momentum with wins over Chelsea and Manchester United.
So much goes to that north London derby on 12 May. That could be the night that settles it all. For now, it was Xhaka’s – and consequently Arsenal’s – day.
Photo Credit: Getty