Eddie Nketiah settles Premier League classic as Arsenal and Man United roll back the years

Arsenal 3-2 Man United: Rashford, Saka and Martinez swapped goals but it was Nketiah who had the final say to score a close-range brace

Miguel Delaney
Emirates Stadium
Sunday 22 January 2023 22:59 GMT
Eddie Nketiah scores the opening goal for the Gunners
Eddie Nketiah scores the opening goal for the Gunners (AP)

A match that went to the limits, and right up to the last seconds and even centimetres, that could also be the one that proves Arsenal can really go the distance more than any other.

There are moments in every such campaign when so much comes together, when performance aligns with belief and timing to foster a sense of destiny about a team. Manchester United, who were such creditable parties to a vintage match that more than revitalised a classic fixture, have seen enough of them. They will have surely seen it in Eddie Nketiah’s improvised and oh so important strike. The agonising wait for the offside call only seemed to aid the moment, as everyone at Arsenal must now think they can end a wait of 19 years.

There is still a long way to go in this season, and this was actually only the halfway point of Arsenal’s league campaign, but what was so crucial was how that momentum was maintained; how they went the distance to show they can keep going the distance.

The 2-2 draw that this match was set to be was one of those that would have reflected well on two burgeoning sides. Arsenal would have been able to take heart from it – especially in coming from behind – but they would have known they left something out there. It could have been all the more costly given Manchester City had used their past two games to cut the gap to two points, offering a sense that the numbers will work for the champions and that slow but inevitable process of overtaking Mikel Arteta’s side was in motion. No more.

Arsenal are setting too impressive a pace. They are propelling themselves further, in terms of emotion and impressive play.

They were ultimately capable of running that bit further than United. That in itself is an illustration that they are two years ahead of Erik ten Hag’s side, who can take heart themselves. They will know they need to get to these levels.

Arsenal’s final 20 minutes were as fantastic a show as you’ll see of how to strive for a match-winner through the most impressive show of football principles, which were only raised further by United’s defiance. It was a brilliant game – that had a climax both the event and Arteta’s side deserved.

The reality was it never let up at all. The opening goal had all of the elements that would elevate the match, setting a pace as well as the stage. There was error to open everything and then excellence to maximise it, as well as the sense that a goal could suddenly come out of anywhere. Thomas Partey had given the ball away to Rashford only for the forward to beat him with it so thrillingly and then power a low shot right into the corner of Ramsdale’s net.

The game went up a level, but Rashford was already there. This was of course a continuation of his sparkling form, that may at this point be the best in his career. It gives United a quality through him they haven’t really had for almost half a decade.

Manchester United celebrate Marcus Rashford’s opening goal (Reuters)

He wasn’t the only player on this pitch enjoying an individual redemption, that made this so rousing. Erik ten Hag was evidently so concerned with Granit Xhaka that he had Scott McTominay man-mark him for much of the match. It necessarily took something away from United’s build-up play but much more from Arsenal’s, as the Swiss midfielder toiled to get free. When he did, though, he offered the most inviting cross for Eddie Nketiah to plunder the equaliser. It was a brilliant striker’s header, but far from brilliant marking.

There were times when the game was just too fast. That more than suited Saka. He was one of the players others were struggling to keep up with.

So it was with Arsenal’s second, that had some similarities with Rashford’s. Arsenal were already probing and opening United, the exquisite Martin Odegaard not just controlling the game but manipulating the ball in a manner beyond anyone else on the pitch. Some of his touches were divine, as he turned entire defences with flicks that other players just couldn’t seem to imagine him trying.

It is also reassuring, in its own way, that this is now the image of his career. It is a classic case of the right club at the right time. Odegaard had looked like his career might not be what it could have been and yet here he is now, looking like the potential player of the year in the world’s biggest league.

There were still times when he was overshadowed by Saka, like for that goal. With Christian Eriksen giving it away in the middle, he then gave the forward too much space, as David De Gea also crucially stepped to the left. Saka drilled it into the available space from distance.

Bukayo Saka, right, celebrates putting Arsenal in front (Action Images via Reuters)

Another superb goal, another sign of what a good match it was – and what a proper team Arsenal are.

There were spells in this match when you would traditionally have said they were laying siege to De Gea’s goal, but it was with the movement of fighter jets as they went in and out. They didn’t totally overwhelm United, though. Ten Hag’s side were almost as impressive in their resilience as Arsenal were in their rampaging play. Almost.

Lisandro Martinez’s equaliser was testament to that. Aaron Ramsdale may not have been at his best in coming for the corner, but the Argentine had no right to score from the position. He expertly arched the ball over the goal over the goalkeeper and in.

The game still had more to come. It still deserved that final act, although both sides deserved something out of the game.

Arsenal deserved it more.

The winner might have come down to the finest of margins. There were two offside checks as Oleksandr Zinchenko turned the ball back and then Nketiah turned it in. It stood, though.

The stadium was on its feet. Arsenal remained clear at the top.

It’s not the first time it’s been said, but this will only foster belief they can stay there, more than any before.

That’s what Arsenal are producing this season.

It produced a celebration this stadium has not yet experienced, but often came over the road at Highbury. That's what this team are harking back to, while looking one of the most irresistible forces in the modern game.

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