Goals, red cards, drama and heroic goalkeeping, Saturday's clash at the Emirates Stadium had it all, writes Ian Hawkey.
Arsenal and Manchester United served up a whirlwind example of what the Premier League does best
Hard though it remains to see much beyond a champion dressed in pale blue and garlanded with praise for their swashbuckling style by the end of this Premier League season, Manchester City will be very hard pushed to cram as much thrill into any 90 minutes as two of their red rivals did late on Saturday.
Arsene Wenger, still puzzling over how his Arsenal contrived to lose by two goals at home to Manchester United on a raucously compelling evening in North London, had advised in his matchday programme notes that “maybe this game doesn’t define the season as much as it used to, but it’s still a very big match and a very important one”.
It sounded almost apologetic. In the first of Wenger’s two decades managing in the Premier League, United versus Arsenal meant a contest of English football’s likeliest title-winners. These days, it tends to be more about ancient managerial grudges than guaranteed glory.
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But what happened on Saturday was a whirlwind, an epic, and a standard-bearer for what England’s top division does best.
Arsenal produced some football as dazzling as any of the champion teams Wenger inspired long ago, and, as the towering individual of the contest, David De Gea put it, they snatched from United the quality most cherished by their manager, Jose Mourinho: Control.
“We lost control,” said De Gea, the United goalkeeper. He let in one goal, after United had rushed to a 2-0 lead after just 11 minutes and he produced 14 saves to directly prevent Arsenal racking up a scoreline to reflect their dominant possession, their sustained encampment in the United penalty area.
The Premier League sells itself so successfully as a television spectacle around the world not because it has the most successful club sides – the Uefa Champions League trophy has resided in Spain or Germany for the last five editions – but because of its feverish pace, its real potential for unexpected outcomes and because, like a favourite soap opera, its major actors have strong, distinct identities. Wenger and Mourinho are its yin and yang, advocates, respectively, of creative football on the one hand and suffocating control on the other.
Arsenal’s creativity was wonderful to watch on Saturday. But so was De Gea’s astonishing capacity to give order to chaos. He used every limb, saving with hands and feet, blocking from point-blank range more than once and looking, always, utterly composed.
Carelessness cost Arsenal, sloppiness in possession by Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi seized on by an aggressive, urgent United in an opening phase Mourinho could hardly have scripted more perfectly.
He already had three central defenders on the pitch, a tactical tweak for the day, and, being Mourinho defenders, they are familiar with the drills of, to use Mourinho’s own phrase, "parking the bus".
By the end United had their three points, yes, but their parked bus was dented, windscreens cracked, bumper hanging off, with only its driver, the superb De Gea unperturbed.
Paul Pogba’s red card, issued for a reckless, sole-of-the-boot ram into Hector Bellerin spoke of a United rattled and the consequences of that foul are heavy.
Pogba, only recently returned from injury, will miss the derby against City on Sunday with suspension. That’s a major absence. Pogba has been a giant for United at times this season, and the fluent recent form of Jesse Lingard, who scored twice against Arsenal, and Anthony Martial owes a good deal to the support play of Pogba behind them in midfield.
United against City is the headline summit meeting of the season so far, the strongest challenger up against the champion-elect.
But Arsenal-United, chapter 18 in the odyssey of Wenger versus Mourinho clashes has been the match of the season so far. And it will take some beating.