Manchester United and Arsenal produced a riveting watch lit up by a goal for Antony on his debut, the Gunners’ sparkle, and a Marcus Rashford double that ended the visitors’ 100% Premier League record.
In the final analysis, though, Mikel Arteta’s team had lost their way by the time Rashford scored his second – when taking the excellent Christian Eriksen’s pass in a breakaway – to kill them off in a contest that had a feel of cruiserweights hurtling at each other with zero respite. At the final whistle Arsenal remained leaders on 15 points while United rose to fifth place on 12, dreadful defeats in their opening two matches receding into the distance and their future, following this fourth consecutive victory, appearing ever brighter.
The opening exchanges gave a clue to the show ahead, with touches for Antony, some Diogo Dalot trickery down the left, and an Arsenal counter in which Gabriel Jesus drew a Lisandro Martínez foul. Martin Ødegaard took the resulting free-kick and Bruno Fernandes headed clear. When Scott McTominay pilfered the ball from Jesus the latter was left poleaxed on the floor. Paul Tierney stopped the contest due to concerns over a potential head injury and when the referee restarted United seriously threatened. Antony was in a cul-de-sac but a clever hitch-kick allowed him to poke to Dalot whose cross hit Eriksen’s boot, but he missed.
A next dizzying phase had Arsenal marauding upfield and from a free-kick the ball fell to William Saliba, who blasted over. When they attacked again it would cause the latest VAR incident of the day. Eriksen was dispossessed by Ødegaard in midfield and Bukayo Saka rolled a defence-bisecting pass to Gabriel Martinelli. His finish, as David De Gea rushed out, was cool, but when Tierney was ordered to the pitchside monitor there would be only one outcome. So it was Ødegaard was ruled to have fouled Eriksen – it seemed marginal – and the strike was chalked off.
It was disappointing for the visitors but the move was as potent a warning as the way Saka moments later skated past Tyrell Malacia as the left-back was chained down. Arteta’s charges were as proactive as United were unbowed as was illustrated by an Antony jink and Jadon Sancho’s quick feet when receiving from Martínez. Martinelli was emerging as the pre-eminent performer. His was a constant menace on the left, often in tandem with Ødegaard. When the latter floated the ball on to the Brazilian’s head only a panther-like De Gea leap kept United level.
What happened next was a dream for Antony. The new man had offered a few dummies along the right that drew derision. But when United attacked once more, Fernandes fed Sancho and he found Rashford. The No 10 threaded a pass to Antony and, on his favoured left, he beat Aaron Ramsdale to ignite pandemonium inside the stadium. After copious beating of the club badge, his celebration was closed with a comical hands-like-cat-claws mime to camera.
The second half of this full-pelt clash began with no cessation in attacking play. Again it came mainly from Arsenal, whose control of tempo and territory oozed class. What they needed was an equaliser. It seemed possible in most moments as did a United breakaway for a second – this latter tactic being their dominant ploy.
Ødegaard spurned a simple chance, slashing wide from close range, then Saka’s twist allowed a blaze at goal but this was off-target too. Arteta, whose XI was full-strength minus Thomas Partey, was a one-man semaphore act. Ten Hag gave an indicator of his own thinking when he replaced Antony with Cristiano Ronaldo on 57 minutes: the diametric opposite of a protect-what-we-have strategy.
Raphaël Varane, who was charged with doing exactly this as United’s senior defender, failed to when Arsenal bagged a deserved equaliser. The No 19 passed straight to Ødegaard, whose delivery in to Jesus fizzed off Dalot, leaving Saka to slot home from 12 yards. What followed was virtually United’s first attacking thrust of the second half. Eriksen skimmed across a pass that went behind Arsenal’s back four and in to Rashford, but he faltered.
But Rashford made no mistake when Eriksen tapped to Fernandes who released the forward to crash the ball past Ramsdale. Rashford’s grin shone with joy. Ten Hag instantly removed Sancho for Fred to steady the ship before Rashford made it 3-1.
It felt that United, for the first time in a long time, were coasting in a serious match against a serious opponent, which is what they did in the remaining minutes, until Tierney blew for full-time to signal jubilation from the home fans.