It was just like old times, apart from, of course, the quality. There were occasional glimpses of brilliance, the ferocity certainly remained, the niggle, the thrills and – somehow – the grudges.
Many of these players were little more than kids, and a continent away, when Arsenal and Manchester United were duking it out in the days of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.
They don’t know what Pizzagate means, they never heard the famous tunnel exchange between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira or saw Martin Keown loom over Ruud Van Nistelrooy like Dracula without his cape.
Manchester United’s resolve has been doubted this season, so it says much for them that they equalised, twice, from their first counter punch, and in the second-half almost straight from kick off. That really was the most ridiculous passage of play: an Arsenal goal run into the net by a Manchester United defender, a Manchester United equaliser as good as teed up by an Arsenal man. Total football, it most certainly wasn’t. Total chaos, maybe.
The scores were level at 1-1 when, in the 68th minute, Marcos Rojo tried some clever woodwork in his own half. Clever footwork is not Rojo’s forte and calamity ensued. He gave the ball straight to Henrik Mkhitaryan as Arsenal broke.
Mkhitaryan combined with another of Unai Emery’s second-half substitutes, Alexandre Lacazette, and as he pulled the trigger to shoot, in charged Rojo, desperate to make amends with Eric Bailly arriving from the other side. Bailly sent Lacazette tumbling, Rojo got a foot to the ball, but succeeded only in helping Lacazette’s shot take a ricocheted path past David De Gea.
Arsenal have made a habit of winning games in the second-half this season, but not here. From the kick off the ball went backwards before being launched upfield to Romelu Lukaku. He turned Shkodran Mustafi, who looked to be struggling with injury, Emery having used all three substitutes early, before Sead Kolasinac came in to mop up. The mop up became a mess up, however, as he ran the ball straight into the path of Jesse Lingard, poaching as usual, and pushing the ball past Bernd Leno. Emery’s anguish was obvious, so too the mockery of the home support.
Yet Arsenal finished with the better chances, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang forcing two fine saves from De Gea in the 70th and 75th minutes, the second at full stretch, redeeming his rare mistake for the visitors’ opener. You read right: a De Gea error gave Arsenal the lead. Stop the press. Hold the back page.
Lucas Torreira curled in a lovely corner from the left, aimed for Mustafi who lost his footing on the greasy surface but recovered to meet the ball just the same. If anything, his slip may have propelled him towards it with even greater purpose, but his aim was off and the header was buried into the turf in front of him. It reared up and the whole cavalcade appeared to take De Gea by surprise. He pawed at the ball but not with his usual strength and it squirmed over the line. Herrera tried to clear but the technology did not lie. Marriner signalled the goal. These days, there can be no complaints.
VAR might have had something to say about United’s equaliser, mind. Not just Ander Herrera’s position for the assist, but the initial foul. Anthony Martial looked to have dived to buy it against Matteo Guendouzi, but Marriner was a willing dupe and awarded a free-kick outside the area.
Rojo took it and Leno parried to his left, but weakly. He did not push the ball away from goal with anywhere near the firmness needed. Herrera was first to it – probably because he was offside – and clipped it back in for Martial to finish. He has been in his best Manchester United form of late, but it was an unsatisfactory conclusion, given that the move most probably started with his deception.