This was a meeting of two sides still adjusting to life after the most iconic manager in their history departed — and so for Arsenal to have less to worry about than United indicates the quality of the job Unai Emery is doing.
Emery took over from Arsene Wenger in the summer amid far lower expectations than those David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and now Jose Mourinho have faced in trying to fill Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes. United, however, had a five-year headstart on Arsenal, yet appear to have already fallen behind their one-time fierce rivals in the rebuilding process.
Both sides are flawed and each conceded two dreadful goals during a game in which they found the greatest encouragement in the other’s fallibility, rather than their own strengths.
Manchester City and Liverpool remain a cut above anything on show last night, but United have had considerably longer — and greater financial clout — to bridge the gap, following Fergie’s retirement.
The Gunners were rarely competitive in this fixture under Wenger in the second half of his reign. They had not won here in the Premier League since 2006 and, while that unwanted record remains intact, they showed much greater mental strength than usual at this venue. They lasted the pace less than 72 hours after completing a north London derby win over Tottenham to finish the stronger of the two sides, as David De Gea redeemed an earlier mistake to make three vital saves, two from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and one from Lucas Torreira.
There will, no doubt, be a sense of missed opportunity, given United are fighting themselves with greater vigour than any visitor. Mourinho’s team selection highlighted the internal division, dropping Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, while also starting previously discarded figures, including Eric Bailly, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo.
The latter was fortunate not to be sent off in a first half, which ended level after Anthony Martial cancelled out Shkodran Mustafi’s 26th-minute header.
United occasionally threatened to get up a head of steam — an environment in which Arsenal would usually wilt — but despite the loss of Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsey to injury, the Gunners stood firm, Matteo Guendouzi becoming an increasingly influential presence.
Substitute Alexandre Lacazette profited from some dreadful Rojo defending to collect Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pass and find a way past De Gea, although his finish was later credited as an own-goal to the Argentine defender.
Emery will, no doubt, organise additional video analysis sessions at London Colney to seek answers as to why Arsenal conceded straight from the resultant kick-off. Sead Kolasinac’s botched intervention saw the ball find its way to Jesse Lingard, who poked past Bernd Leno.
But, ultimately, the Gunners extended their unbeaten run to 20 matches and backed up the win over Spurs with an equally resolute performance at a ground where they so often struggle.
There was enough here to reinforce the cynical view that Arsenal are yet to be found out by top-level opposition, but for now the more most noticeable conclusion is that they are beginning to show the kind of resilience that sees them secure a positive result.
It is worth remembering that Wenger secured only four away League wins and took 16 points in total on the road last season. Emery is already at four victories and 14 points when the Christmas decorations have only just gone up.
“Away, our challenge is to come to teams like United and I think yesterday our response was positive,” he said. “We are getting a better competitive team and I think our spirit also is good.
“Usually, United create a lot of chances here and I think we didn’t concede a lot of chances. I think for us to take confidence, yesterday was very positive.”
There are, however, issues to address. Holding’s injury raises a concern about the composition of Emery’s preferred line-up if he perseveres with a 3-4-2-1 formation. Nacho Monreal remains sidelined with a hamstring problem and Holding’s absence could force Stephan Lichtsteiner to deputise as a right-sided centre-half, as he did here, something that any team blessed with pace in attacking positions will relish.
There is also the conundrum of how to work Lacazette into a starting line-up that currently accommodates only one central striker. De Gea had to be at his best to deny Aubameyang another goalscoring appearance, but Arsenal’s second goal was a reminder of Lacazette’s potency, which surely demands his inclusion against Huddersfield this Saturday.
Emery slapped the ground in frustration when Arsenal conceded their 2-1 advantage almost immediately from kick-off, an indication of the work still to do. Yet, it was Mourinho who was the one on the defensive afterwards.
“I am not under siege, not at all,” he said. “We play against a team in the top of their season, the top of their moment, where everything goes well for them, against a team that has so many problems. At the top of these problems, during football matches, we shoot ourselves.”
Emery should take great encouragement that at a ground which has so often resembled a shooting range, this time the gun was not pointed at him.