The biggest compliment you can pay to Arsenal is that this performance wasn’t possible 12 months ago.
The win wasn’t down to swashbuckling football – they were capable of that under Arsene Wenger – but it was a victory of resilience, nous and know-how.
It’s not always been clear which direction Unai Emery has wanted to take this Arsenal side and the road ahead looked particularly blurry after a humiliating 3-1 defeat to Rennes in midweek. But today was an indicator of where Arsenal could go with faith in the Spaniard. Faith from the board but also faith from the players.
It was, it must be said, not without it’s fair slice of luck but Emery must take the credit for the intangible additions that he’s made to this Arsenal side. In their mentality, their outlook and character they are a completely different side to teams of years gone by.
Results elsewhere meant the game became less of a must-win and more of a mustn’t-lose for these top four-chasing sides but there was no sign of hesitancy in Emery’s team selection. In attack there was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, where United thought there would only be one. In midfield there was Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, where United thought there would only be one.
Those selections were always going to make for an open game but in a clash where both sides would prefer to counter-attack, the opening goal became even more important than normal.
Romelu Lukaku should have had it after 10 minutes when Luke Shaw played a neat one-two with Paul Pogba and put a pass on the Belgian’s plate but his sloppy effort cannoned away off the crossbar.
In many ways that epitomised United’s performance and they found themselves behind moments later when Granit Xhaka wrong-footed David De Gea from distance.
The Swiss midfielder opened up from around 25 yards and his ‘knuckleball’ effort initially swung one way before bending to De Gea’s right to put the Gunners ahead. Though there was movement, De Gea cannot use it as much of an excuse and it was a definite mistake from the Spaniard.
What followed was Arsenal’s best period of the game. The Gunners were outnumbering United’s four-man midfield with their wing-backs and the ball was being fed into the feet of Lacazette and Aubameyang with ease.
Nevertheless, despite their domination, Arsenal barely threatened and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s decision to match Emery’s system gave United the upper hand.
First Fred hit the post from distance when teed up by Paul Pogba, then Lukaku was again guilty of squandering a great chance when he was through on goal but couldn’t round Bernd Leno.
Arsenal went in at the break with their slender advantage and it seemed like a matter of time before the visitors found an equaliser after the break.
Lukaku’s scored six in his last three matches but he was guilty again of squandering United’s best chance when he was threaded through by Marcus Rashford on the hour mark. Again, though, he was foiled by the on-rushing Leno.
Clean sheets have been hard to come by for this Arsenal side but their resilience was symbolised by the Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
The youngster was given the unenviable task of marking Rashford but there was a moment 25 minutes from time when he blocked the England forward and immediately made his way over to the home crowd, pumping his chest and showing the commitment that’s been so lacking in recent years.
Solskjaer called for more ‘composure’ in attack after the astonishing win against PSG on Wednesday but it was lacking at both ends of the pitch and Arsenal had the perfect chance to double their advantage 20 minutes from time when Fred upended Lacazette in the box.
Replays showed there was minimal contact but Jon Moss’ view was all that mattered.
Lacazette had been Arsenal’s best outfield player by a considerable distance and deserved a goal for his efforts but he handed the ball over to strike partner Aubameyang.
The Gabonese missed a crucial last minute spot kick against Tottenham last week but he made no mistake this time, putting his effort straight down the middle to put Arsenal two goals up.
Solskjaer rolled the dice by taking off Nemanja Matic and replacing him with Mason Greenwood but the visitors couldn’t find a way past the Gunners.
The win takes Arsenal above United into 4th and leaves the Gunners just one point off rivals Tottenham in third.
Solskjaer knew his unbeaten start in the Premier League would come to and end at some point but if there’s to be a regret it’s that it came against a top four rival. Too many players looked off the pace and lacking the composure and calmness to play in these mentally-taxing matches.
If the Norwegian’s to be perfectly honest he’ll admit that United have rode their luck on a few occasions during this unbeaten run but the irony is that they probably deserved something out of today’s game.
In that sense it was a reversal of some of the memorable Arsenal-United matches of years gone by, most recently the 3-1 win for the Red Devils in 2017.
But then this is a different Arsenal and this is a different United.