Arsenal burgle a personality win as Declan Rice shows why he was bought | Arsenal

new balance


Perhaps the best part of Declan Rice’s day, his first big Emirates Stadium afternoon, was the fact that for the opening 95 minutes of this tight, taut, occasionally turgid game, Arsenal didn’t play that well.

Rice didn’t play that well, not really, by his best, most regal, long‑striding – sports writers do love a stride – midfield standards. Instead, he was tethered for long periods, ratting in the deep spaces, fighting to cover a position‑and‑a‑half in midfield, where Kai Havertz was again a spectral entity, only partially present in the material world.

Manchester United were impressively stodgy and dour, and rapier-quick on the break, so much so they that took the lead that way through Marcus Rashford and seemed to have gone 2-1 up with 87 minutes gone, only to be denied by a toenail offside.

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Arsenal might very easily have lost this game: that was the best part. Because they won it instead, burgled it slightly, and did so by an act of will, luck, opportunism in added time.

This was a personality win not a systems win. More to the point it was exactly the kind of thing they didn’t do at the end of last season, when moments were there to be seized, but seemed to slip through the lines of Mikel Arteta’s slightly callow team.

The decisive goal came six minutes into stoppage time with the score 1-1, and the Emirates Stadium by now a tortured and angsty place. Rice controlled an overhit corner from Bukayo Saka beyond the back post and thrashed it at goal with his right foot, a slight deflection enough to deceive André Onana, the ball squirming into the near corner of the net as Rice was already off haring for the touchline.

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Alejandro Garnacho shoots on goal
If Alejandro Garnacho’s goal had stood it would have been 2-1 to Manchester United but he was offside by a fraction. Photograph: Robin Jones/Getty Images

It wasn’t a sweeping move, just one of those funny little bits of luck and moment-snatching, the kind of thing that happens because a footballer insists on it happening, an odd goal in a tight game where otherwise Rice was to be found sitting deep covering United’s thrust on the break.

Not that any of this will take away from Arteta’s satisfaction. This is, among other, cleaner, more measurable things, what Rice was meant to bring to this team, a little bit of desperation and drive in those tight moments. It was a quality felt keenly, in its absence, towards the end of last season, when Arsenal made a good job of drawing tight games, of going ahead and being reeled in, tightening up as the line approached.

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There was time for Gabriel Jesus to add a third with an expertly taken breakaway to make the final score 3-1, before the final whistle blew and the Emirates Stadium was consumed with Rice Rice Baby over the PA. It was taken up right around this huge cantilevered bowl, as Rice, who is basically an open book, grinned and beamed and waved and gripped his manager to his chest like an uncle hugging his favourite nephew.

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The season is of course only half begun. It might be simply a moment along the way. But a win that might quite easily not have been a win will feel twice as sweet given the questions levelled at this team have centred on elements such as spirit, sleeve‑rolling passion and all the rest of it. Imagine what they might look like when they actually start to play.

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The stadium had been furiously alive before kick-off on a gruellingly hot late summer day. Through a combination of bad luck and injuries Arteta was forced into picking his strongest team, albeit that accidental balance was thrown out of whack by another strangely wan-looking performance from Havertz, who may or may not be a high-class left-sided advanced midfielder just straining to emerge fully formed and rainbow‑coloured from his chrysalis. But not on this evidence. Or indeed, on any evidence so far.

Both of these teams have tried to rejig their midfield in the close season, no easy job given the intricacies of what happens in the central box, the profound level of detail and fine margins required to work those spaces. United have signed Sofyan Amrabat to add more ballast, more life in that area. Amrabat is a player with wonderful defensive highlight reel. He even sounds frightening. His name sounds like arm, bat, armour. Maybe in the next window they can find a player called Attack Shield or Biceps Flex.

Arsenal, of course, have Rice, their record signing. With two more progressive players alongside him here he spent the first half lurking in between the centre-backs, working hard to close the back door, to ease the transitions from deep.

Martin Ødegaard cancelled out Rashford’s first-half opener with a classic low, left-footed hammer into the corner. United were solid, grudging, and seemed as the second half crept on, to be edging the day. Then came that final act; and a sense inside the Emirates Stadium of alternate endings.

new balance



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