It was a game to evoke memories of when these two clubs had the rivalry that defined English football and the destination of the Premier League title; a shuddering collision which was surely the best watch of the season so far.
Keane in the tunnel; Keown versus Van Nistelrooy; brawls; flying pizza. It all felt like a part of it again because, for the first time in a long while, the fixture had a relevance to the championship race. As it always was, it was incident filled from first to last; the tackles flying, the tempers flaring. And when it was over Arsenal had taken an adrenaline-fuelled step towards their first title since 2004.
There is no feeling quite like the last-minute winner and the Emirates crowd rocked to a delirious beat when Eddie Nketiah popped up to deliver it. There would be a long VAR check for a possible offside in the buildup but when it was cleared, the celebrations were wild. As they would be upon the full-time whistle. Everybody could feel the significance of the result.
The new signing, Leandro Trossard, on as a substitute, fed Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left (the full-back would be shown to be level with the last Manchester United defender) and, when he pulled back, the excellent Martin Ødegaard shot. And there was Ntekiah to twist his body and flick home.
The striker had already scored for 1-1, cancelling out Marcus Rashford’s screamer, and perhaps the greatest tribute that could be paid to him was that he has made everybody forget the injury-enforced absence of Gabriel Jesus, who was one of the players of the first part of the season. Since the restart after the World Cup, Ntekiah has scored six goals in six appearances.
Arsenal deserved to win. They played mostly on the front foot – certainly throughout the second-half – and, after Lisandro Martínez had scored his first United goal for 2-2, it was Mikel Arteta’s team that pushed, who refused to be happy with the point. They advertised the winner. When it came, it was – in the words of Arteta – beautiful, electric and emotional.
United were game opponents, with Rashford the spark; he has now scored nine in nine since the World Cup and 17 for the club this season. Martínez, still bandaged after catching a stray elbow in the 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace last Wednesday, was a symbol of their defiance. But there was not enough around them, particularly up front, while each of the concessions were marked by looseness.
United are ahead of schedule under Erik ten Hag, who said during the World Cup that he sees Arsenal as being too far away. His real aim is a top-four finish, which he feels would be “like our championship”. That would represent progress. In the moment, though, it was impossible to get past the frustration. As at Palace, United let the result slip at the very last.
Arsenal’s belief was a huge part of it, together with their thirst for revenge after the 3-1 loss at Old Trafford last September – their only defeat of the league season. What was noticeable after Rashford’s goal was the reaction of the home crowd. As Ødegaard roused his teammates, there were bellowed cries of “Ars-en-al” from the stands. Nobody in red saw any reason to panic.
Nketiah had a shot blocked by Raphaël Varane. Gabriel Martinelli whipped wide after Bukayo Saka had pulled back a corner to him. And then Ntekiah struck, getting in on Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s blindside to head home from Granit Xhaka’s cross.
Rashford continues to bristle with confidence and his goal followed an outrageous chop past Thomas Partey. He followed it with a firecracker beyond Aaron Ramsdale from outside the box.
It was breathless stuff, the duels enthralling – particularly Saka versus Luke Shaw. Ben White was booked for a scissors-style challenge on Rashford; the full-back would be substituted at half-time. Arteta was shown a yellow card for moaning at the officials.
United had threatened first when Martínez dropped a ball over Gabriel Magalhães for Bruno Fernandes, but his touch was as disappointing as his appeal for a penalty after a brush from Ramsdale. Scott McTominay – in ahead of Fred for the suspended and badly missed Casemiro – also extended the Arsenal goalkeeper on 29 minutes after a sweeping move.
Ødegaard was yet again so easy on the eye, ever alert to the cute angle; always looking to hurt United. It was Saka, though, who got Arsenal in front for 2-1, skating inside Shaw, trying his luck and hitting the jackpot when David De Gea could not get across to the far corner of his net.
Back came United. Ramsdale saved smartly from the irrepressible Rashford but then he blotted his copybook, coming for a Christian Eriksen corner through a crowd of his own players, nobody from United, and punching weakly. Martínez put his head in where it stood to hurt, looping over Gabriel on the line.
But back came Arsenal. Varane made an important tackle on Ntekiah, Eriksen blocked an Ødegaard shot and Saka hit the outside of the far post with another curler. Rashford almost got in on a Fernandes pass but it was all Arsenal by now. When De Gea saved brilliantly to deny Nketiah at close quarters on 84 minutes, United thought they might cling on. Ntekiah had other ideas.