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William Saliba carries Arsenal past Manchester United as Premier League title race goes to final day

On a day where so many of Arsenal’s greatest technical qualities deserted them, William Saliba showed the steel of champions. A fearless, purposeful and youthful Manchester United approached their task with admirable purpose. They just never really got a sniff. On so many trips to Old Trafford since Sylvain Wiltord won the league in 2002, United have looked bigger, stronger, more streetwise. Not on Sunday. Saliba was like the playground bully. Alejandro Garnacho and Amad Diallo might swing and charge, but like Scrappy Doo, they couldn’t lay a glove on the big bad.

It was not that easy for the rest of Saliba’s teammates. For 36 games Arsenal had held their demons at bay. At the graveyard of so many of their contemporaries over the last 20 years and change, they got spooked. There are few more convincing explanations for a timid, slow first half in which these second ball vacuums were bouncing off Manchester United bodies, sloppily distributing the ball from their own third, wasting too much time getting it into their opponents.

Thomas Partey’s was the headloss in chief, a relic from last season’s Arsenal, a side who may have been set off course by injuries but never got back onto it because they were too caught up in the moment. Five bright minutes to start the game were nearly undone when he tried to dummy Scott McTominay, whose poke on the ball teed up Rasmus Hojlund to drive high and wide. The Ghanaian flung himself to the ground as Amad Diallo charged at the box, there was never a convincing case for a United penalty but Partey was positioning himself to do something very damaging.

A better United would have punished clumsiness that extended to such usually cool hands as Ben White, Bukayo Saka and even Declan Rice. Erik ten Hag did not have the chance to name that sort of team but the young bucks he did deploy were determined to seize their moment. Diallo played with a vigor that had you wondering why, beyond the fact that his manager has invested so much political capital in him, Antony has been given so many chances on the right wing. Too many of Garnacho’s crosses were of last season’s more wasteful vintage. He was more effective crashing to the byline, firing crosses where Hojlund or McTominay ought to have been.

You couldn’t fault the industry of this young side but without Mason Mount or Marcus Rashford, let alone Bruno Fernandes, they lacked the guile required to break down England’s best defense. United’s performance was typified by Kobbie Mainoo. He misplaced only two of his 51 passes but all too often the youngster was looking backwards, giving his side control without penetration. Frankly, just one of the two was quite the step up from the team that so fouled things up at Crystal Palace on Monday night. 

Typified by the youngsters it might have been but it was defined by an altogether more experienced figure. You would not have known that Casemiro was that sort as he ambled back towards the rest of his defense when Andre Onana clipped the ball into midfield. Saliba, as he so often would, won his duel and Kai Havertz knew. Screaming for the ball to come his way immediately, he got it with Casemiro playing him onside by a margin of about five yards.

If you wanted to offer mitigating circumstances, that a career defensive midfielder doesn’t often need to worry about being the last man back, they were rather punctured by the tame way in which he defended Havertz’s cross. A player with 650-plus career games knows to attack a cutback rather than let it roll across him for Leandro Trossard to tuck into the net.

Arsenal had their chances to win the game from their out, particularly as counter-attacking opportunities presented themselves when Gabriel Martinelli was introduced. The more purposeful, confident winger of last year would not have always needed an extra touch before firing between three United defenders and against Onana’s left arm.

It wasn’t much but it was more than Manchester United created. Some of that was down to the deficiencies of their side but plenty came down to those Arsenal players who went through the closing stages with composure, none more so than Saliba. As Garnacho charged towards his penalty area he stood firm, baiting the stepovers in the knowledge that they would offer the perfect instant to step forward and win possession back.

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Shots in Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, sized by expected goal value TruMedia

When Arsenal needed to gird themselves against pressure of their own making, they did so. From the 77th minute to the final whistle, United registered just one shot. Throughout the entire match, they allowed only four shots in their penalty area, all from the livewire Garnacho. They challenged the young Argentine to beat them, and when he couldn’t United had nothing else to exploit. When the clock became their greatest weapon, David Raya sat on every cross. Jakub Kiwior and Jorginho entered the fray, just in case.

Their nerves were cracking, their possession play was wayward but when the stakes were as high as they have been in a generation, Arsenal got the job done. The title race will go to the final day. They may well discover in seven days time that they did not do quite enough to stay out in front of Manchester City but Mikel Arteta’s men will at least make the champions win it again.

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