This was a classic of sorts that featured two more Marcus Rashford goals, a sold-out stadium witnessing Louis van Gaal pleading from the floor to the fourth official, and Manchester United recording a victory that is a serious blow to Arsenal’s title hopes.
If the 10-1 odds offered during the game on Rashford making England’s Euro 2016 squad seem hasty these may be viewed generous if he continues the Hollywood start to his United career
Just as his twin strikes secured United’s passage against Midtjylland into the Europa League last 16, so his Premier League debut ended after 80 minutes with him having created Ander Herrera’s winner to complement his two goals.
The Spaniard’s strike came before the Van Gaal pantomime but tempers were already fraying when the manager decided to do what he rarely ever does: leave his seat. This received a raucous reception from the crowd. When Van Gaal yelled at Mike Dean, the fourth official, and dived to the turf to mimic how he believed Alexis Sánchez was trying to claim a foul, the place went through the roof.
It had the fans singing “Louis van Gaal’s army” for the first time in a long time and could yet revive the love affair between them and the Dutchman. Playing the reception down, Van Gaal said: “Great but the fans are not always wise.”
After his two-goal debut last Thursday Rashford was asked to do it all again versus opponents more than a couple of classes better than the Danish champions. It did not take long for him to suggest he could. From hugging the left touchline Rashford ran on a diagonal at Petr Cech’s goal, displaying a slipperiness that confounded Héctor Bellerín and Gabriel and forced the latter to foul. The shout went up for a penalty but the referee, Craig Pawson, adjudged it outside the area and Memphis Depay zipped a low hard free-kick under which Herrera ducked and Cech watched carefully.
There was only sloppiness in the way Theo Walcott ceded possession to presage the sequence that led to Rashford’s opener. Herrera took possession and sprayed it right to Guillermo Varela. The Uruguayan’s cross missed Juan Mata, Gabriel hashed his clearance, and Rashford was in dreamland once more with a neat finish.
This was on 29 minutes. Only three more were required for Rashford to repeat the feat and send the home crowd into near ecstasy. Again the play was along the United right and again Varela was a key player. This time he fashioned a slick back header to keep the ball alive. It found Jesse Lingard and when he floated in the delivery Rashford rose like a seasoned centre-forward to head beyond Cech.
The party atmosphere lasted only eight minutes as Arsenal scored and it was too simple. Mesut Özil swung in a free-kick, Marcos Rojo and Morgan Schneiderlin were slumbering, and up went Danny Welbeck to finish.
At the start of the second half Arsenal were five points behind Leicester City and embarking on 45 minutes that might make or break their championship aspirations. Sánchez signalled he understood the stakes by making a run at the defence but the threat fizzled out.
United – and Rojo’s – injury curse was about to strike again. The defender and Welbeck contested a fierce 50-50 and moments later off he went, to be replaced by the 18-year-old Tim Fosu-Mensah. It took the count to five United debutants in a week as the Dutchman was later joined by James Weir, to follow Rashford and Regan Poole against Midtjylland, and Joe Riley, in last Monday’s FA Cup victory at Shrewsbury Town.
As the hour mark came Arsenal were becalmed and Wenger made a move, taking off the disappointing Walcott for Olivier Giroud. But it was Rashford, again, who refused to be left out.
When Mata fashioned a smooth reverse pass it was into Rashford’s clever run. He moved into the area, dawdled and measured a pass to Herrera whose side-foot finish deflected off Laurent Koscielny for what turned out to be the winner.
Arsenal responded as a topsy-turvy affair took its next turn. David de Gea, who was returning from a leg injury, made a save from Welbeck but Özil volleyed into the turf and the top right-hand corner. From here the temperature rose. Herrera dropped Aaron Ramsey and the Arsenal man raised his hands to the Spaniard. Down went Herrera, up went the United fans’ ire, and after a melee of players calmed down, Pawson booked Ramsey.
Now came Van Gaal’s moment. Incensed by Sánchez, he went to remonstrate with Dean. The delirium that accompanied Van Gaal lying prone was matched when Pawson blew for full-time and United had a third consecutive win for the first time since November.