It was billed as a titanic clash, a bout between heavyweights, a potential Prem title decider, and, well, that’s all probably a bit premature and a bit hyperbolic. Yes, Man U have nosed their way into the top
three four, but they’ve done so by feasting on mid-table minnows and relegation fodder (except, it must be admitted, for their dramatic derby win at the weekend). However, it never felt like they really got a foothold in this match whereas Arsenal? Well, it has to be said that we rose to the occasion, seized it, and made it our own. It was a dramatic, emphatic win, the kind that could very well propel us to our first Prem title since 2004. In fact, for those curious, we’re five points ahead of that Invincibles side.
All of the pre-match hype focused on how this felt like the first time since Ferguson and Wenger retired that this old rivalry felt like something substantial, something real, rather than something listing to the side somewhat, hoping that those former days of glory might offer some artificial respiration to an otherwise lifeless corpse living on old grudges and fading memories. Having said all that, though, it doesn’t quite feel like Man U showed up. Yes, of course, they took the early lead, but that had just as much to do with our own early sloppiness , if not more, than it did with anything Man U manufactured. Two giveaways inside of a second gave Rashford the opening, and, credit the lad, he took it.
Aside from that, however, Man U’s attack was fairly toothless. Eriksen, Anthony, and Fernandes were all but anonymous. They only managed six shots, most of those in that nervy first half in which they seemed more like a punch-drunk street figher trying desperately to land one haymaker rather than a cagey fighter sticking to a strategy. When they did land one, courtesy of Rahsford, they seemed to awaken a sleeping giant. Rather than collapse, crestfallen, our side rose up in unison, fired on by lusty chants of “ARSENAL! ARSENAL! ARSENAL!” and we responded in just over five minutes, Nketiah lulling Wan-Bissaka to sleep before darting inside of him to head home. When Saka fired home from just outside the area, Man U were reeling and against the ropes. Martinez’s equalising header was the first headed goal we’ve conceded this season and was again a result of luck rather than planning, Ramsdale spilling it into the diminutive Argentinian’s path.
By the time Nketiah poked home in the waning moments, the die had been cast. The gulf in class between us and our visitors was stark, and the only marvel was that the scoreline didn’t reflect this gulf. We created chance after chance after chance, fluffing most (if we’re being honest) but being denied by the woodwork and by de Gea just as often. In a game of inches, it could have been a reverse of that infamous 8-2 scoreline back in 2011, and I don’t think many other than Gary Neville would have complained.
There’s a belief, a hunger, a confidence, deep already but deepening by the week, that there is something special going on here. We’re only just now halfway through the season, and we’re five points clear—but that’s well within the margin of error considering that we still have to face Man City twice. Given their quality and experience compared to our youth, both on the pitch and in (or at least adjacent to) the technical area, it’s still City’s title to lose.
Even then, this match provided the kind of moment that makes men out of boys. Earlier in the day, Man City did what Man City do, heaping pressure on to what was already a potential cauldron of a match. Lose, and City are only two points. Draw, and the gap is just three. Not only are the maths feeling squeaky, but so too are bums. Instead, our lads showed mettle. They have minerals. They’re collecting results and points and momentum. It’s still far, far too early to crown us champions. Far too early. There’s still so much football to be played. Unlike City, we’re still only an injury here or there from wobbling away.
Even if that fate does befall us, the stumble would not be the result of any lack of quality or endeavour or any bold stratagem on Guardiola’s part. We’re still growing, evolving, improving; we’re still plumbing the depths of what’s possible. Have a look at the week-by-week table. While there are banana peels and jammy teams and outright obstacles, the growing sense is that Arteta and this squad simply refuse to believe that anyone can stop them. Heck, I’m actually looking forward to going toe-to-toe with Man City. Something tells me that, win or lose, we’ll give as good as we get and silence a fair few critics.
There’s still plenty of football to be played. Plenty, indeed…but wild-eyed optimism is starting to at least make room for something more closely resembling clear-eyed pragmatism.