LONDON — Granit Xhaka fired Arsenal into the Premier League’s top four as Arsenal emerged 3-1 victors in a pulsating, dramatic and error-strewn clash with Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium.
Their stay may be a short one. Tottenham face Brentford later on Saturday, but Arsenal remain firmly in the mix after a week in which they beat Chelsea and Manchester United in two chaotic encounters. Even in comparison to Wednesday’s six goal thriller, this was a baffling game in which both sides conceded clumsy penalties, United’s missed by Fernandes, and offered their opponents a host of opportunities. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise conceding how these teams performed last time out.
Arsenal fans had thought it fair to assume that United could not possibly turn in a display of defensive deficiency to compare with their error-strewn loss to Liverpool, that there simply must be some sort of reaction at the back. It took just three minutes for them to be disabused of that particular notion.
Granit Xhaka’s cross into the box flew into the corridor of uncertainty between defense and goalkeeper, but there was no excuse for United defenders Raphael Varane and Alex Telles to both connect with fresh air. Bukayo Saka’s initial shot might have been saved, but Nuno Tavares was on hand to convert the rebound.
When they had the ball in the final third, Arsenal looked like they could United apart at will. With Jadon Sancho station high up the pitch, Telles found himself on an island attempting to defend Saka and Martin Odegaard, who could continually drift into the right half space without being tracked. Those two combined to tee up an offside Nketiah to slot home the second but VAR quickly established that Telles had barged into Saka, who would go on to score his second penalty of the week.
One might have thought it would be plain sailing from there, but Arsenal never looked entirely comfortable under the press of a United front four who seemed to have finally got Ralf Rangnick’s message about the value of winning the ball in the final third. If Telles was a liability for United, it was nothing compared to Nuno at the other end. In attack there were moments when you could believe the youngster would win the game for Arsenal. On the other end, he seemed destined to cost his team.
He was certainly not the chief culprit for the goal that halved United’s deficit just after Saka’s penalty. Odegaard could have been quicker to close down Nemanja Matic’s cross, while Gabriel and Aaron Ramsdale both seemed to expect the other to come for it. Ronaldo profited with his 100th Premier League goal.
Into the second half momentum seemed to be irresistibly on United’s side, the Arsenal backline terrified by the sight of Ronaldo and Sancho engaging pressing mode. For all the pressure, it was baffling that Nuno opted to compete for a corner in Superman pose, his right arm stretched out to meet the ball as it ricocheted around.
Fernandes baited the goalkeeper into diving from the resulting penalty but could only roll the ball against the post, Ramsdale springing to his feet to punch the air just in front of the crestfallen United captain for the day. Arsenal did not learn their lesson, however, and Ben White was fortunate to not have been caught playing Ronaldo onside when he volleyed into the net.
Then from nowhere Xhaka, so often the Emirates’ lightning rod in the worst moments, saved Arsenal. He never needs a second invitation when space opens up for him 30 yards out, he delivered a pulverizing low drive that De Gea could never have got near to. Suddenly this match of high drama was brought to an abrupt end at just the right time for Arsenal.
Their bid for Champions League football is well and truly alive once more. United’s may well be over.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism