Welcome to the mad house, Ralf. If Manchester United’s incoming interim manager was not fully aware of the size of the challenge that faced him, or how erratic his new team have come to look, it was highlighted before him during a performance that batted between the ridiculous and the sublime.
Ralf Rangnick had buckled up before kick-off in the directors’ box, his work permit having come through earlier in the day – although too late for him to have any involvement in the match – and he could be delighted at how United found a way to win.
Inevitably, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who made the difference. Recalled to the starting lineup by the outgoing interim, Michael Carrick, he scored twice to move to 12 United goals in 16 appearances for the season, the second from the penalty spot proving to be the winner. But it only partially told the story of a team display that was wracked by defensive insecurities and a lack of cohesion.
When Ronaldo’s penalty went in, there were 20 minutes to go and it would have taken a brave or foolish United fan to predict an unfussy closing out of the result. There are no such certainties at present; the last two months or so have been a battle from one phase of play to the next and Arsenal had their chances. And yet they could not take them – reinforcing another theme of the occasion.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was hesitant with one on the break and he was fortunate that an offside flag was raised against him after he failed to beat David de Gea shortly afterwards. The Arsenal captain’s touch deserted him time and again. And, when the clock showed 87 minutes and the ball broke for the substitute, Bukayo Saka, there was Fred to hurl himself into a vital block.
If anybody captured the helter-skelter nature of it all, it was Fred, who appeared intent on finding different ways to put his team in trouble for much of the first half, with the pièce de resistance being his role in the opening goal.
The midfielder lost his bearings on an Arsenal corner and trod on De Gea’s foot as the goalkeeper came to punch. It caused De Gea to roll his ankle and go to ground in obvious distress. Arsenal, meanwhile, worked the ball across the edge of the area for Emile Smith Rowe to shoot home, with De Gea still lying stricken.
United felt as though a whistle had to go. To them, it was almost surreal and Martin Atkinson did blow, with Fred – hilariously – having led the protests. And yet the referee only did so after the ball had gone in and for what? A foul by Fred on a teammate? It was quickly apparent that the goal would stand.
Fred would show great courage to fight back. He had already won the ball off Thomas Partey on 11 minutes to create a chance for Ronaldo, which the centre-forward dragged wide with Marcus Rashford in space to the right. At the end of the first half, Fred would create the equaliser for Bruno Fernandes and it was him who was fouled by Martin Ødegaard for the decisive penalty.
For Arsenal, the frustration was intense. They had arrived in form – with seven wins and two draws from 10 league games – and, with the present of the opening goal, they had the springboard to kick on. And yet they found a way to throw it away; their defending coloured by naivety, their final actions frequently lacking cutting edge.
United had kicked off with five points from the previous eight games – their worst run over such a period in Premier League history – and it is difficult to overstate how bad they were in the first 15 minutes. They were nervous and error-strewn, offering spaces to Arsenal in between the lines and, although Smith Rowe’s goal was coloured by strangeness, it had been signposted.
Rashford had sliced inches over his own crossbar in the second minute after a poorly defended corner and, before that, Jadon Sancho had missed an easy pass to present Aubameyang with his first shooting opportunity. It was blocked.
United were there for the taking and Arsenal let them off the hook, allowing them to work their way on to the front foot – if a little unsteadily. Gabriel Martinelli fluffed a good chance on 39 minutes after he cut in from the right – Smith Rowe was in space for the pull-back – and United changed the game with the equaliser, which was defined by Fred’s ingenuity and vision.
Ben White had erred with a clearance and, when Sancho worked the ball inside to Fred, he did well to make the angle for the cut back and execute it. Fernandes’s sure-footed side-foot was his first United goal in 16 appearances.
United started the second half with greater tempo, although they still needed De Gea to beat away a Gabriel header following a corner. Ronaldo almost scored after drifting inside Partey and working Aaron Ramsdale from a tight angle and then he did.
Nuno Tavares lost the ball to Diogo Dalot and left a yawning gap behind him, which Dalot exploited with a fine pass to Rashford, who crossed. When White and Partey lost Ronaldo, everybody knew what would happen next.
It was the prompt for United to switch off and leave space at left-back for Partey to pick out Martinelli, with Ødegaard arriving unchallenged to direct the cross into the far corner. The Norwegian, though, would turn villain, his lunge through the back of Fred giving Ronaldo his chance from the spot. The mystery was that Atkinson needed a tap on the shoulder from VAR to award the kick. It was not the only one.