In the emotional eruption of the final whistle, Gabriel Jesus in his shiny puffer coat beamed by the side of the pitch to greet his team-mates when they made their way to the tunnel. This was bear hug territory. When Jesus caught up with his mate Oleksandr Zinchenko — a man so pumped up he played as if this particular game was personal — they leapt into a chest bump and screamed into each other’s faces.
These two know. They carry with them what they know. It has been said time and again that their arrival at arsenal made the rest of the squad up their levels and their understanding of what is required to be serious contenders.
Here are Arsenal, on 50 points at the halfway point. They are not messing about and Mikel Arteta would not have it any other way. The man spends his waking hours thinking like a win-monster.
Of course, Arsenal won’t come up trumps in every game, but in his preparation and his ideology, in his team selections and motivational talks, Arteta sees every single game as there to be won. That is why he gestures like a banshee on the touchline, whether critics like it or not. That is why he walked in from day one and slammed down a set of non-negotiables. That is why the Amazon documentary was such a compelling window into how driven he is, which has turned around how the Arsenal fans regard him. That is why his team were able to, in his words, keep “pushing and pushing and pushing” to seize this victory.
At the climax of this gripping contest, Arteta learned something about his players. The way they were intent on searching for a match-winner when it would not have been the end of the world to settle for 2-2 was a critical signpost in the story of Arsenal’s development. “The initiative to make things happen when the game is at a stage of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen’ — they are not looking at each other saying ‘he’s going to do it’. They say, ‘I take responsibility. I’m going to do it’, and I absolutely loved that today,” said Arteta.
As it happened, they more or less all took responsibility. The decisive moment was a team move, forced by collective will. It took 26 seconds and 10 passes, from Bukayo Saka‘s throw-in to Nketiah’s instinctive flick, with the ball passed around all but one (Granite Xhaka) outfield player.
Arteta has never stopped believing in Nketiah, and even when the striker felt the agony of an instinctive shot repelled by David De Gea five minutes earlier, he had enough faith his player would not let that prey on his mind in case another chance came his way .
Afterwards, Martin Odegaard contemplated the impact that goal has on how Arsenal feel about themselves. The difference between a respectable draw and a rambunctious win is not insignificant. They found a way to make it happen. “It’s a big difference,” the captain says. “The three points are crucial for us but also the feeling and momentum we take from this game is really important for us to win in this way. To come back like we did gives us three points but also this special feeling. It keeps us more together.”
Arsenal keep pushing and pushing and pushing, to get the maximum out of this squad and this situation. These chances don’t come around often. As Odegaard says, a lot of that impetus comes directly from their manager. “Every day in training he is pushing us to do our best,” he says. “The standards we have are unbelievable. Everyone has to be so sharp every day. We come in, we work hard, and we only want the best from everyone. So then you see that in the game as well.”
This was not a perfect Arsenal performance. There was unusual sloppiness at times. Some players were less than their best in the first half and neither Thomas Partey nor Aaron Ramsdale will reflect fondly on their part in United’s two goals.
On the flip side, Saka was electric—unplayable, Nketiah excelled in his all-round game as well as his goals, and Zinchenko was a man possessed. It reflected well on the broader squad that Takehiro Tomiyasu came in at half-time, despite being used sparingly this season, to slot in comfortably. Leander Trossardon what might have been a nerve-wracking and difficult situation to come into, made a handful of expert runs that showed exactly why an experienced and versatile forward could be very useful over the coming months.
Jakub Kiwior was in attendance, with the defender due to sign imminently, and Arsenal’s business is not necessarily finished, with a need to manage the squad clearly a new challenge for the second half of the season with European football soon to return. That will be a fascinating insight into Arteta’s win-monster thinking as he manages the Europa League alongside the continued hopes in the Premier League. Maybe something will have to give there. Indeed, with Manchester City next up in the FA Cup and before long in the league, that is another one where it will be curious to see if Arteta feels a need to temper his instincts and be more pragmatic than usual.
“I know my team so well,” he says. “I know where we are, I know why we are here and I know where we want to be and we are far from that. I know the levels of the other teams and one especially that has won in the last five or six years and we are not there yet.”
Manchester United they were the toughest opponent to visit the Emirates so far this season. Marcus Rashford was the most spectacular individual from the opposition to strut his stuff on this turf. This was a complicated game, make no mistake.
Arsenal could have settled. But Arteta’s players are inculcated with that sense that they must keep giving, keep chasing until they have no more to give, nothing left to chase.
These past three games have been a particular test of Arsenal’s mettle. As a mini-series, a Newcastle team who don’t concede, a trip to Tottenham where they hadn’t won in years, and a vastly improved Manchester United was always going to be a defining moment of their season.
“It was electric and really emotional and really passionate and I loved it,” Arteta purred. It is only halfway, of course, but the home support looked dazed with the scary joy of it all as they went off into the night. Fifty points. Such stuff seemed light years away not so long ago.
There is a magnetic force at the Emirates at the moment, drawing people in, or back. Arsenal people from the past are turning up in numbers. Tomas Rosicky was in town. Emmanuel Petit was pitchside giving post-match interviews sporting an Arsenal scarf. Tony Adams was there with his family. Thierry Henry had hugs for the players. Freddie Ljungberg was proud to watch on. So was Cesc Fabregas.
How does Arteta keep the youngsters level-headed after a run like this? “Reminding them every single day,” he says. “This league is so demanding that the opponents are going to make life very difficult, so make sure we allow ourselves every day to get better.”
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)