It was a game to evoke memories of the time when these two clubs had a rivalry that defined English football as well as the destination of the Premier League title; a shuddering collision that was surely the best watch of the season so far.
Roy 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, tackles flying, tempers flaring. And, when it was all 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 revelled in it when Eddie Nketiah popped up with 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.
Arsenal’s new signing, Leandro Trossard, on as a substitute, fed Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left (the full-back was level with the last defender) and, when he pulled back, the excellent Martin Ødegaard shot. There was Ntekiah to touch home from close range. The striker has made everybody forget the injury-enforced absence of Gabriel Jesus, who was one of the players of the first part of the season.
Arsenal deserved to win. When Lisandro Martínez scored his first goal for Manchester United to equalise at 2-2, it was Mikel Arteta’s team that pushed, who refused to be happy with a single point. The winner had been advertised. When it came, it was pure bedlam.
United were game opponents. The outstanding Marcus Rashford had given them the lead with his ninth goal in nine matches since the World Cup – and his 17th of the club season – but Arsenal hit back when Ntekiah scored his first of the day before Bukayo Saka made it 2-1.
United are ahead of schedule under Erik ten Hag, a title challenge possibly too much for them to hope for; a top-four finish more realistic, which would still represent progress. After the concession of a last-gasp equaliser at Crystal Palace last Wednesday, they once again had a sinking feeling in the capital.
It was fast and furious at the outset, the atmosphere pulsating. Arsenal sought to bring a high press, to set a tone that involved being daring on the ball; Saka a prime example, especially when he dropped a shoulder on Christian Eriksen as the last man. It was a test of United’s composure. David de Gea suffered a couple of early wobbles on the ball.
United stabilised and then they led. In spectacular style. Rashford continues to bristle with confidence and the breakthrough was fired by his ability to think of an outrageous trick and pull it off. Thomas Partey was dispossessed and Bruno Fernandes played a short pass in to Rashford, who had Partey for company.
Rashford chopped inside, Cristiano Ronaldo-style, touching the ball through Partey’s legs and off he went. A few more touches left to right, seeking the pocket of space to unload and then the shot – a firecracker that exploded past Aaron Ramsdale from outside the box.
What was noticeable was the reaction of the home crowd. As Ødegaard roused his teammates, there were bellowed cries of “Ars-en-al”. Nobody in red saw any reason to panic. Arsenal gathered themselves. Nketiah had a shot blocked by Raphaël Varane. Gabriel Martinelli whipped wide after Saka pulled back a corner to him.
Ødegaard shimmered with menace and he was involved in the equaliser, working the ball left to Granit Xhaka, who stood up a cross to the far post. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, on his wrong side, seemed unaware of Nketiah’s run behind him. The headed finish was straightforward, the goal made by the movement.
It was breathless stuff, the duels enthralling – particularly Saka versus Luke Shaw. Ben White was booked for a scissors-style challenge on Rashford.and was substituted at half-time. Arteta was shown a yellow card for moaning at the officials.
United looked to punch on the counter, to profit from Rashford’s glorious moment. They had threatened first when Martínez dropped a ball over Gabriel Magalhães for 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 Casemiro – also extended the Arsenal goalkeeper on 29 minutes after a sweeping move, sparked by a Martínez tackle on Ødegaard.
Ødegaard was yet again so easy on the eye, ever alert to the cute angle or maybe a reverse pass; always something to hurt United. It was Saka, Arsenal’s other main danger, who put them in front, slicing inside Shaw, trying his luck and hitting the jackpot when De Gea could not get across to the far corner of his net. In the moment, it felt like a soft concession.
Back came United. Ramsdale saved smartly from the irrepressible Rashford but then he blotted his copybook, coming for an Eriksen corner through a gaggle of his own players, nobody from United, and punching weakly. Martínez put his head in where it stood to hurt, looping home 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. When De Gea saved brilliantly to deny Nketiah on 84 minutes, United thought they might get to the finish line with something. Ntekiah had other ideas.