From desperation to joy in the closing stages, it was a turnaround, a way for Arsenal to kick off their season. And a way for Manchester United’s misery away to continue. As the Emirates screamed their team name, United’s pain knew no bounds.
Alejandro Garnacho thought he had won for the visitors, thought he landed the most perfect of punches. As a substitute, the winger sped on an 89th-minute pass from Bruno Fernandes to slip a cool finish past Aaron Ramsdale and into the Arsenal net.
Garnacho struck late at Fulham last season to secure Erik ten Hag’s only win in London with United. It continues to exist that way due to a sequence of insane events that have taken the Emirates’ breath away.
First, VAR spotted Garnacho being slightly offside when he started his run. On replays, it looked like Gabriel Magalhães, Arsenal’s final defender, had sucked his stomach on the way up. Then Arsenal stole it.
Did they deserve the win? It was hard to say after an erratic and error-laden game. But the majority of those present did not ask themselves the question. They simply let the emotions overtake them after Declan Rice, unmarked beyond the far post from a corner, touched the ball in the sixth minute of stoppage time and saw his shot slip past United substitute Jonny Evans , and beat André Onana.
In the 81st minute, Arsenal thought they had made the decisive move only for Onana to save Bukayo Saka with his foot. When they broadcast the replay on the big screen, the local audience let out a collective cry of surprise. Saka had to score. But there would be a deafening gloss when another substitute, Gabriel Jesus, swooped in at the very end and struck Diogo Dalot to make it 3-1. United are yet to register a Premier League victory against a major rival under Ten Hag.
It was “one of the most important games in the Premier League”, to quote the United manager, second against third last season and, with the transfer window closed – thank goodness, to paraphrase every manager – he it was time to focus on what really mattered.
The atmosphere was thrilling and it was Arsenal who came out on top quickest, determined to play front and center. United struggled to come out early on, living on edge when building from the back, finicky when going long.
Arsenal had the first big chance, Kai Havertz winning possession and moving his side only to then mis-kick when the goal called as United missed a Gabriel Martinelli cross.
The first goal appeared on the post for Arsenal. And yet, United managed to score. It was their first significant push and inevitably it was Marcus Rashford, edging inside from the left, Ben White and William Saliba not close enough, the finish headed expertly inside the far post .
Christian Eriksen had triggered the break, stepping in to intercept a loose pass from Havertz inside aimed at Martin Ødegaard. Eriksen drove and it was a well weighted ball from him to Rashford.
It took 35 seconds for Arsenal to equalize – a bitter frustration for Ten Hag as United’s undeserved ascendancy crumbled. The green and white stripes (yes, United) saw Arsenal throw in a few passes, with Martinelli playing the key, a nice cut for Ødegaard, who swept in with the look of a man who knew exactly what was coming.
All United supporters knew the team could have arrived in the Emirates with zero points, as the results far outweighed the performances. They badly needed something more cohesive here, an answer to the questions that seem to be everywhere – and that’s before we got to the current Glazer leak, the devastating torment of the owners’ tenure.
Wounds bit. Scott McTominay and Jadon Sancho did not travel – Raphaël Varane, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Mason Mount were already out – and Ten Hag had no choice but to persist with Diogo Dalot out of position at left-back ( on loan Sergio Reguilón, was not ready) or Eriksen in midfield. Eriksen played well.
It felt as if the main benefit of starting Anthony Martial up front was allowing Rashford to play his preferred role on the left. Antoine was struggling on the right.
Victor Lindelöf was shown a yellow card for a cynical foul on Eddie Ntekiah just before half-time, knocking him out on United just after being outpaced – he was lucky Lisandro Martínez returned to the game medium.
Arsenal were also struggling; their passage lacks zip and precision. It felt like the game was there for them to grab in the second half, even as Ramsdale fended off a Martial shot and White blocked Rashford’s rebound. Still had to get hold of it.
The unlucky Havertz thought he had won a penalty on the hour mark when he pulled away from Aaron Wan-Bissaka and past Casemiro before going down. But VAR saw he anticipated the contact rather than actually felt it and rescinded the award.
Injury concerns for Ten Hag were heightened when Martínez injured himself while throwing a yellow card at Nketiah; came Harry Maguire, to predictable derision from home support. Ten Hag also featured £72million signing Rasmus Højlund for his debut, Martial making way.
Mikel Arteta made similar changes. Would there be a hero in the final stages? Martinelli guided a shot wide, Rashford threatened at the other end. Calm the drama.