Emirates Stadium gets a taste of Highbury nostalgia as Arsenal overcome both rivals and adversity
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Throw away your plastic clappers – there is no need for an artificial atmosphere at Arsenal these days. This is the Emirates and the sound you can hear is that of the Premier League leaders hitting the front, firmly now, as title favourites. At the end of an absorbing and dramatic win against Manchester United it was only the bitter chill that reminded you this was January and not April or May.
There was the sight of exhausted bodies strewn on the turf. After Eddie Nkietah and Oleksandr Zinchenko collapsed, Bukayo Saka wheeled away and roared, as Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka lapped the pitch.
Mikel Arteta’s side are pushing into new ground; this young team are responding to the pressures they are only just discovering. So, too, is the Emirates. Gone are the days of the crowd here living on the edge of doom; there is resilience to this side and while Arsenal’s season has been typified by fast, attacking starts, it has been so far matched by their collective ability to respond to adversity.
That was put to the test by a resurgent Manchester United, but a competitive performance from Erik ten Hag’s side rather masks the fact that they were outplayed. It had been 13 years since these teams had met as title contenders but on a night that had a retro feel they produced a contest of thrilling drama at the top of the Premier League table. In days past, Arsenal and Manchester United’s rivalry was lifted by big characters and personalities, and the Gunners now have them in abundance. Arsenal trailed, led, were pegged back, but Arteta’s finely-tuned system pushed on at a relentless pace.
Their rhythm was punctuated twice in either half – after Marcus Rashford’s stunning opener and Lisandro Martinez’s scrambled equaliser – but Arsenal react differently these days. After a moment, the shouts that rippled round and of encouragement, not of frustration. Odegaard motioned furiously to go again and in the seven minutes between Rashford’s strike and Nketiah’s back-post header he had been everywhere, demanding for more. The Arsenal captain takes on so much responsibility on the ball and adds graft to match his ability, but is backed up throughout the team.
In recent seasons matches between Arsenal and United have more often been for fourth place but the performance and goal from Saka was of a player who would have graced this fixture when it was at its peak. Fearless, he took charge and his stunning second-half strike was ferocious as it was high-calibre.
Nketiah’s displays since coming in for Gabriel Jesus have been indicative of a team who have shown no sign of panic to their new position. Nketiah, who has offered Arsenal so much outside of the box, pounced with two poacher’s finishes.
Arsenal’s tone had been set early on, as it so often is. Zinchenko led a passionate huddle before kick-off. Xhaka barked for a throw-in after 20 seconds. Arsenal played quickly through Saka and Gabriel Martinelli but also committed to a dangerous game. Arsenal went man-to-man with United in defence but controlled possession and dominated the goal-scoring chances.
That is not to say United did not play their part in an end-to-end contest of pace and grit. The lack of authority they had in midfield, taken away by Casemiro’s suspension, was covered by the threat of an outstanding Rashford.
There was an indication of Arsenal learning from their mistakes, too. In September they had pushed too hard at Old Trafford when they fell to their only defeat of the season so far. There was balance this time.
Arsenal couldn’t find a way through when held by Newcastle earlier this month – the only game in which they have dropped points at home – but they grew from that experience. There was a greater sense of calm this time, in the stands and on the touchline, as Arsenal stuck to their approach in the closing stages. Arsenal had already come from behind to win at home twice this season – against Fulham and West Ham – and there is trust in the process.
When the Arsenal fans arrived at their seats they found plastic clappers, a move that seemed at odds with the authentic atmosphere that has been created by a new generation of fans, for whom Arsenal’s last title is only a blurry memory.
The gimmick was quickly dismissed; rolled-up pieces of paper tossed away. It’s not needed when you are fuelled by leading the way in in the title race. There is a long way to go but what Arsenal have created is powerful, and could yet carry them all the way.
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