As Arsenal take title race to final day, triumph over Man United expels doubts over progress

MANCHESTER, England — With about five minutes left of normal time on Sunday, a flash of lightning followed by a loud crack of thunder reverberated around Old Trafford. Arsenal are used to storm clouds gathering in the red half of Manchester, a record of one win in their past 16 Premier League visits underlining the submissive nature of so many trips here.

However, Sunday’s 1-0 win underlined once again just how far they’ve come under manager Mikel Arteta. Past Gunners teams would have found a way to drop points here.

The obvious comparison is February of 2016, the year when then-unknown teenager Marcus Rashford made his Premier League debut up front in an injury-ravaged side including inexperienced defender Guillermo Varela at right-back and an ageing midfielder at centre-back in Michael Carrick. United somehow won 3-2 and Arsenal’s title hopes were dented. Even last season, Arsenal were flying unbeaten at the top of the table when they were beaten 3-1 by United in a game the Gunners dominated for long periods, only to be taken apart on the counterattack.

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Here, the Gunners had to win to keep their title bid on track and United’s lineup offered palpable encouragement with Casemiro and Jonny Evans at centre-back, Sofyan Amrabat in midfield and winger Amad Diallo making his first league start in three years.

Arteta admitted before this game that Arsenal’s checkered history in this fixture weighed on his mind in the buildup and, perhaps informed by a combination of that, the counterattacking threat and United’s current travails, they were much more passive than usual here.

“Today, we had to play in a really special place that our history was not very optimistic about what could happen, but we found a way to win it,” Arteta said. “That says a lot about how much the team wants it.”

Casemiro once again reminded the world why he isn’t a centre-back, taking an age to join the rest of his defensive line higher up the pitch. In doing so, he played Kai Havertz onside as Arsenal won the ball back and then failed to shut down the space at André Onana‘s near post as Leandro Trossard stole in to score what proved to be the game’s only goal after 20 minutes.

The Gunners’ conservatism was not by design. “We started to play too safe, not respecting any structure and not with enough purpose,” Arteta said. “I did not like it and we had to change it but we struggled to do it. If you don’t have that element to be more dominant and more present in the game, you have to be extraordinarily competitive and do the defensive things right. I thought we were excellent at that.”

Perhaps the legs were made heavy by the stakes in play; that is the more likely explanation than the opposition, given that United’s players did not possess either the confidence or the quality to make use of the ball. They ended up with 54.1% possession but just two shots on target and an expected goals figure of just 0.55.

At least Alejandro Garnacho tried. Diallo faded badly after a bright opening half an hour while Rasmus Hojlund battled for space inside the back pocket William Saliba and Gabriel have been putting strikers in all season.

United were missing Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Lisandro Martínez — to name just three first-teamers — and Arsenal probably made more of a meal of this than was necessary, forcing Onana into three late smart saves only as the game became a little more stretched.

Perhaps they were stunned by just how bad United were. After all, there are now 32 points between these two sides who once contested a duopoly at the summit of English football.

Regardless, Arsenal’s victory here continues a pattern of establishing themselves as a durable force in the biggest games. They will finish the season unbeaten in matches against the traditional Big Six — a record of six wins and four draws from 10 games versus Manchester City, Liverpool, United, Chelsea and Tottenham.

The records keep coming. A tally 28 wins and 89 goals are both Premier League highs for Arsenal. If they fall short, they won’t have thrown it away. City will have won it.

The Gunners have taken it to the final day of the season no matter what, sustaining their challenge in a way they failed to produce last year. The bitter irony that their north London rivals, Tottenham, are the key to their fate now is not lost on anyone.

City travel to Spurs on Tuesday for their game-in-hand now seeking to overturn a two-point deficit.

“I am going to be the biggest fan of Tottenham ever,” Havertz told Sky Sports. “Let’s hope for the best.”

Arteta referenced Arsenal’s narrow 3-2 win at City last month, adding: “We know we need it. They are a really difficult team to play against. We suffered that a few weeks ago when we played them. So, hopefully, they can do it. My experience in this league is that any team can beat any team. I lived it various scenarios in the last day when a lot of teams have necessities. The margin of respect that everybody puts in the games is phenomenal.

“We need to do our own thing still in the last game. But today, we wanted to open that box of dreams to live the last day of the season in front of our people with the opportunity to win the Premier League.”

The storm intensified shortly after the final whistle, rattling the roof of the Sir Bobby Charlton stand housing the gleeful traveling Gunners, who spent much of the afternoon singing about how they “won the league at Old Trafford” referring back to a 1-0 win on this ground in 2002.

They could have lost it today, but didn’t. Whatever happens in the next week, that seems like progress.


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