LOOKING back, Arsenal won when Marcus Rashford scored. The Gunners’ dramatic response was instructive. There wasn’t one really. Nothing to see here, beyond a sense of creeping inevitability. The universe would quickly right itself.
The lack of tension among Mikel Arteta’s men – and their unruffled fans – was palpable. Their shared belief was obvious. An equaliser is coming. A winner will come along soon after. Like London buses. Just wait. They’ll arrive eventually and a familiar, victorious destination will be reached. Next stop: The English Premier League title? It’s not yet certain, but it’s visible on the horizon now, no more a distant dream, but a real possibility.
Arsenal are no longer afraid of anything, not even themselves.
Previously, spontaneous combustion was their thing, turning seasonal implosions and title collapses into Shakespearean tragedy or farce (depending on your club allegiances). A five-point lead was frittered away in the 2007-2008 season, an eight-point advantage was squandered in 2002-2003 and there were other near-misses to lament or ridicule – again, depending on your club allegiances – as the Gunners did what the Gunners do.
Fall over and break.
The Humpty Dumpty of English football could never be put together again quickly enough to salvage silverware challenges or a bit of dignity. And the old ditty was destined to play out again this morning. Everything was in place. Manchester United were on the rise. Rashford was on fire and Manchester City had earlier cut Arsenal’s lead at the top to just two points.
But there was no panic. The fear factor has left the Emirates.
Martin Odegaard rallied the supporters, who rose to the vocal challenge and the Gunners responded accordingly. Arsenal do not collapse like Arsenal anymore. It is mildly disconcerting, but deeply satisfying to watch.
The re-emergence of both sides has led to lazy reminiscences of flying pizzas and Roy Keane’s tunnel threats, but Arsenal and Manchester United in the early 2000s was a bit West Side Story: a visceral, violent battle between choreographed chorus lines. Scrappy gang fights are hard to predict.
Their current relationship is closer to Top Gun Maverick. Yes, there’s an enemy of sorts, to propel the narrative and sustain interest, but the outcome is never really in doubt. These Gunners are operating at a different level. And they’re flying.
If Mikel Arteta is not quite hanging off a plane to promote the upcoming FA Cup game against Manchester City, he is similarly unfazed at such an elevated and potentially hazardous altitude. It’s new territory and he looks completely at home.
His real achievement is convincing those around him to accept that such a peculiar situation is entirely normal. The Gunners belong in the clouds. Why not defy Arsenal’s traditional laws of gravity and stay there?
Gunners are different beasts than before
Against Manchester United, there was certainly enough turbulence to trigger a descent. Rashford’s staggering goal and form warranted a panic attack. He targeted Arsenal’s one genuine weak spot – their right-back position – and threatened to bring the demons back to North London.
But the Gunners are different beasts now, taking the best of Darwinism and mixing it with Arteta’s pragmatism to problem-solve on the pitch. They swarmed Rashford after his goal. They tagged and tormented him until he submitted. Unstoppable in the first half, he was anonymous in the second.
There was a panicky response in the latter stages, but it came from the United dugout. Erik ten Hag sent on Fred to protect the 2-2 scoreline. It was an acknowledgement of the gap between the two sides and Arsenal’s superiority.
In the past, the Gunners struggled with such a lofty position, as if it wasn’t entirely merited. Imposter syndrome often took hold. They weren’t sure if they belonged at the top of the pile so they engaged in daft acts of self-sabotage until they fell away.
Not anymore. They pressed on against United, like Liverpool in the prime, hunting voraciously for anything vulnerable or wounded until they eventually, inevitably, punched a hole through a tiring United defence. Eddie Nketiah’s 90th-minute winner was met with a kind of joyful confirmation rather than unhinged delirium. Like James Bond's climatic showdown with a villain, it was expected.
Even Nketiah’s presence taps into the collective, meditative mindset that has turned the Arsenal dressing room into a yoga retreat of sarong-wearing free spirits, sharing only joss sticks, acoustic guitars and three points every week. All vibes are positive.
Talismanic forward Gabriel Jesus is ruled out with a long-term injury? It’s all good, man. Throw in the journeyman Nketiah and he’ll knock in six goals in six appearances since the World Cup.
United's Luke Shaw is on a similar spiritual reawakening, finding himself on the path back to being one of the best left-backs in England? Relax, man. Get Bukayo Saka to cut inside and shoot quicker until the net flicks and chill.
There’s always an answer with Arteta’s Arsenal. But they are not a “happy flowers” team, to borrow Pep Guardiola’s recent criticism of City, unless they’re a bunch of Venus flytraps in search of a feast. They do not wilt in an uncomfortable environment, which makes the second half of the season an invigorating step into the unknown.
There are distinct echoes of Leicester City’s jaunty ride to the title in 2016, like a gaggle of students on their first drunken night out, unsure where or how the party will go, but boasting the collective will, endeavour and youthful insouciance to see it through until the very end. An unbeatable first XI, a lack of injuries and a carefree attitude throughout saw the Foxes home.
The Gunners could do the same.
Of course, Manchester City are still to come. Home and away. The results of those potential title-deciders are impossible to predict. Only one thing is certain. Arsenal will not panic.
Manchester City are still to come. Home and away. The results of those potential title-deciders are impossible to predict. Only one thing is certain. Arsenal will not panic
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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