So much for parking the bus…
Aware that they could not afford to slip further behind their local rivals in the race for the title, Manchester United tore up the script and tore into Arsenal at the Emirates.
They were two goals up in 11 minutes against the shell-shocked Gunners, who pulled a goal back just after the break before a third for United made it 3-1.
Jose Mourinho is renowned for his spoiling tactics away from home against other teams towards the top of the table, but that approach was ditched in favour of one more in keeping with United’s rich attacking traditions.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be fuming that his side were caught napping by those two early goals, but in truth this was a deserved victory for his old rival.
The Frenchman and the Portuguese have been the best of enemies since the latter’s first stint at Chelsea, and they exchanged fiery words and a shove or two on the touchline a few seasons ago.
Arsenal went in to the game in good form and full of confidence but were ambushed by Mourinho’s ambition to hit them hard straight from the off.
Within the first four minutes, Antonio Valencia took advantage of some slack Arsenal defending to put the visitors ahead.
With the Gunners still regrouping after that setback, Jesse Lingard made the most of Anthony Martial’s pass and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Petr Cech on 11 minutes to put United 2-0 up. Mourinho’s side were buzzing and bossed the first half of the game.
Whatever Wenger said to his troops at half-time clearly had an impact, and Alexandre Lacazette found the net in the 49th minute to give the disgruntled home fans hope of a comeback.
Nullifying the threat of Lacazette had probably not figured in United’s game plan. A few days earlier, Wenger had ruled him out of contention because of a groin injury, but the French striker was in the starting XI. Mourinho wasn’t alone in catching a whiff of something fishy…
Arsenal now had their tails up as that pre-match confidence flooded back, and United had David De Gea to thank for some outstanding saves in the second half. The Spanish stopper was rightly lauded as man of the match after keeping the Gunners at bay.
Sure enough, as the hosts pushed for the equaliser, they left the door open for United, and Lingard duly stepped through it to score his second.
On 64 minutes, a simple, rapid counter-attack instigated by Paul Pogba ended with Lingard side-footing home to give Arsenal a mountain to climb.
The score remained 3-1 at the end of a breathtaking encounter, giving Mourinho a first win in his past 12 away fixtures against the Premier League’s ‘big six’.
However, it wasn’t all good news for United as they headed back north, with Pogba suspended for the vital Manchester derby clash on December 10th.
The midfielder was given a straight red in the 74th minute for a reckless lunge that saw his studs planted firmly into Hector Bellerin’s calf.
Mourinho, who is known for causing a scene when he disagrees with the referee’s judgement, perhaps surprisingly stayed in his seat rather than berate the fourth official.
Neither did Pogba’s team-mates seem to take issue with the sending off, and the general consensus among the travelling support was Pogba only had himself to blame.
But United will go into the derby at Old Trafford buoyed this result and their performance at the Emirates.
Can they still catch City? Pep Guardiola’s team are widely viewed as champions elect this season, but it would be unwise to rule United out of the running just yet.
City also began last season at a blistering pace before slowing down after the hectic Christmas period.
Plus, United now seem better equipped to mount a serious title challenge. Apart from the occasion blip, their struggles of the previous campaign, as characterised by too many draws and uninspiring, narrow wins, seem to be behind them.
United are clearly getting more out of Pobga, now that the £85m midfielder has been given more freedom to roam forward, thanks to the summer signing of Nemanja Matic.
Lingard is now staking a strong claim to be a regular starter, with young talents such as Martial and Marcus Rashford improving all the time, and the likes of Phil Jones and Ashley Young realising their potential.
United can definitely challenge City this season if their current form continues, but the result of this weekend’s derby could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.