Arsenal’s hunger and passion as they chase a first Premier League title in nearly two decades burned so brightly that Pep Guardiola was moved to hold him up as an example of all-conquering Manchester City.
As Guardiola unleashed fury in all directions to spark an upgrade from the reigning champions after City’s 4-2 win over Tottenham, Arsenal was a name on his lips regularly.
It was the clearest indication yet of Arsenal’s growing progress and maturity under his former right-hand man Mikel Arteta that Guardiola made clear who he regards as serious title contenders – even warning they will “destroy” City unless they improve.
And if anyone doubts exactly why Guardiola delivered his warning, they need only look at the manner of Arsenal’s impressive victory over a rising Manchester United in a thriller at the Emirates Stadium.
The bare stats stated that Arsenal’s 3-2 win, secured by Eddie Nketiah’s 90th-minute strike, put them five points ahead of City with a game in hand.
Dig deeper, however, and Arsenal’s importance in overcoming a United side heading in the right direction under manager Erik ten Hag becomes clear.
Arsenal, in the eyes of those who have seen them wilt under the pressure in recent years, need to prove themselves every week. The good news for increasingly optimistic Gunners fans dreaming of a first title since ‘The Invincibles’ in 2003-04 is that Arteta and his players did it.
Why should there be lingering doubts about the pedigree of a team that has won 16 and lost just one of their first 19 league games, with Sunday’s win a straight-set against the only team to beat them in the top flight this season?
And there were other factors at work that made Arsenal’s biggest test of the season and, arguably, their biggest win.
Manchester City’s response to Guardiola’s demands, a comfortable 3-0 win against Wolverhampton Wanderers, meant Arsenal could feel the champions on their shoulders with all the pressure it brought.
And when Marcus Rashford fired Manchester United in front with a stunning low shot after just 17 minutes, it affected the atmosphere around the Emirates Stadium, although Arsenal fans immediately turned up the volume to inspire a revival.
Their cries were answered by Nketiah’s equalizer and although Lisandro Martinez leveled Bukayo Saka’s goal, Arsenal showed another side to their character that answered the questions raised in recent weeks.
Arsenal, and manager Arteta, let themselves be tied to a goalless draw at home to Newcastle United at the start of January, with tempers and discipline missing.
Arteta received a yellow card for a first-half outburst here but when the acid test came, Arsenal’s players controlled their emotions and showed no signs of championship pressure as they remained calm, creating chances until Nketiah’s poacher popped up in the six-yard box to send the Emirates Stadium wild
It was in keeping with the drama of the day that Arsenal’s goal celebration was put through the torture of a VAR check for offside before the full release of the rumble.
There was an added edge to Arsenal’s joy as these three points were earned, deservedly so, against a rising Manchester United. A draw is certainly disappointing but not devastating, such is the task ahead of Arsenal.
The strength of Manchester City’s squad may still have a decisive impact in this title race but Arsenal’s Nketiah has emerged from the shadows to play a key role in the absence of the injured Gabriel Jesus, who was so central to Arsenal’s style in the months leading up to the World Cup. Cup.
Nketiah has taken his chances and then some, his two goals here making it 13 goals in his last 13 home games.
And while Jesus may be sidelined for some time yet, Arsenal have another key element of title-winning knowledge imported from Manchester City in Oleksandr Zinchenko, whose ability to link defence, midfield and attack in his package of play makes him invaluable to Arteta.
There is also reinforcement for Arsenal’s title challenge.
Arteta introduced Leandro Trossard, a £21m new signing from Brighton, late on as Poland defender Jakob Kiwior watched from the stands ahead of the formalities of his £21m move from Serie A club Spezia.
Arsenal were under similar scrutiny when they traveled to Tottenham for a north London derby seven days earlier and produced equally strong evidence that Manchester City may have just two chances to dethrone the Gunners when they play in London later on February 15. in Manchester on April 26.
Both dates feel like they should be circled in red on the calendar as Guardiola will increasingly feel that they cannot ask for help from anyone else given Arsenal’s undeniable form.