Emirates Stadium tastes Highbury nostalgia as Arsenal overcome adversity

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Throw away your plastic clappers – there’s no need for an artificial atmosphere at Arsenal these days. This is the Emirates and the noise you can hear is that of the Premier League leaders now firmly emerging as title favourites. At the end of a captivating and dramatic win against Manchester United, it was only the bitter chill that reminded you that this was January and not April or May.

There was the sight of exhausted bodies strewn on the turf. After Eddie Nkietah and Oleksandr Zinchenko collapsed, Bukayo Saka rolled and roared, while Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka rippled across the pitch.

Mikel Arteta’s squad is breaking new ground; this young team is reacting to the pressures they are only just discovering. So is the Emirates. Gone are the days of the multitude who live here on the brink of destruction; there is resilience to this side and while Arsenal’s season has been marked by fast, attacking starts, it has so far been matched by their collective ability to respond to adversity.

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That was put to the test by a resurgent Manchester United, but a competitive performance from Erik ten Hag’s side rather conceals that they were outplayed. It had been 13 years since these teams had met as title contenders, but on a night that had a retro feel, they produced a game of thrilling drama at the top of the Premier League table. The rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United used to be lifted by great characters and personalities, and the Gunners now have them in abundance. Arsenal trailed, led, got pinned, but Arteta’s finely tuned system continued at a relentless pace.

Their rhythm was interrupted twice in both halves – after Marcus Rashford’s stunning opener and Lisandro Martinez’s coded equalizer – but Arsenal are reacting differently these days. A moment later, the cries that rippled around were of encouragement, not frustration. Odegaard beckoned furiously to go again and in the seven minutes between Rashford’s attack and Nketiah’s header at the back post he had been everywhere demanding more. The Arsenal captain takes so much responsibility on the ball and adds to his abilities but is supported by the whole team.

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Games between Arsenal and United in recent seasons have often been for fourth place, but Saka’s performance and goal was from a player who would have graced this game at its peak. Fearless, he took the lead and his stunning attack in the second half was ferocious and of high calibre.

Nketiah’s showings since replacing Gabriel Jesus are indicative of a team that has shown no sign of panic in their new position. Nketiah, who has provided Arsenal with so much out of the box, attacked with two poacher’s finishes.

Arsenal’s tone was set early on, as so often. Zinchenko led a passionate group before kick-off. Xhaka barked for a throw-in after 20 seconds. Arsenal played quickly through Saka and Gabriel Martinelli but also committed to a dangerous game. Arsenal went man-to-man with United in defense but controlled possession and dominated the scoring opportunities.

That’s not to say United didn’t play their part in an end-to-end contest of speed and grit. The lack of midfield authority taken away by Casemiro’s suspension was made up for by the threat of an excellent Rashford.

There was an indication that Arsenal were also learning from their mistakes. In September they had pushed too hard at Old Trafford as they fell to their only defeat of the season to date. This time there was balance.

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Arsenal couldn’t go through being held by Newcastle earlier this month – the only game they dropped points at home – but they’ve grown from that experience. This time there was more calm in the stands and on the sidelines as Arsenal stuck to their approach in the dying minutes. Arsenal have already come from behind this season to win twice at home – against Fulham and West Ham – and there is confidence in the process.

When the Arsenal fans arrived at their seats, they found plastic clappers, a move that seemed at odds with the authentic atmosphere created by a new generation of fans, for whom Arsenal’s last title is but a distant memory .

The gimmick was quickly dismissed; rolled up pieces of paper thrown away. There’s no need if you’re fueled by leading the way in the title race. There is still a long way to go, but what Arsenal have created is powerful and yet could carry them all the way.

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