William Saliba guides Arsenal past Manchester United as the Premier League title race enters the final day

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

For the rest of Saliba’s teammates, it wasn’t so easy. For 36 games, Arsenal had kept their demons at bay. In the graveyard of so many of their contemporaries of the past twenty years and the changes they became afraid. There are few more convincing explanations for a timid, slow first half in which these second ball vacuums bounced off Manchester United’s bodies, distributed the ball sloppily from their own third and wasted too much time getting it into their opponents.

The main loss of Thomas Partey was the main loss, a holdover from Arsenal from last season, a side that may have been thrown off course by injuries but never recovered because they were too caught up in the moment. Five bright minutes before the match started were almost undone when he tried to deceive Scott McTominay, whose ball-on effort prompted Rasmus Hojlund to drive high and wide. The Ghanaian threw himself to the ground when Amad Diallo stormed into the box. There was never a convincing argument for a United penalty, but Partey positioned himself to do something very damaging.

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

You can’t fault the industry of this young side, but without Mason Mount or Marcus Rashford, let alone Bruno Fernandes, they lacked the guile needed to break through England’s best defence. United’s performance was typified by Kobbie Mainoo. He misplaced just two of his 51 passes, but the youngster too often looked back and gave his side control without penetration. To be fair, only one of the two was a huge step up from the team that so ruined things at Crystal Palace on Monday night.

Typified by the young it might have been, but it was defined by an altogether more experienced figure. You wouldn’t have known Casemiro was that type as he ran back to the rest of his defense as André Onana fired the ball into midfield. Saliba, as so often happens, won his duel and Kai Havertz knew it. He shouted for the ball to come his way immediately and got it as Casemiro played it onside by a margin of about five yards.

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If you wanted to offer extenuating circumstances that a defensive midfielder doesn’t often have to worry about being the last man back in his career, they were rather tickled by the tame way he defended Havertz’s cross. A player with over 650 career games knows how to take a cut instead of letting it roll over him for Leandro Trossard to dive into the net.

Arsenal had chances to win the match from scratch, especially when counter-attacking opportunities presented themselves when Gabriel Martinelli was introduced. Last year’s more purposeful, confident winger hadn’t always needed an extra ball movement before firing between three United defenders and onto Onana’s left arm.

It wasn’t much, but it was more than Manchester United created. Some of that was down to their side’s shortcomings, but a lot of it came down to Arsenal’s players calmly moving through the closing stages, none more so than Saliba. As Garnacho charged towards his penalty area, he remained steadfast and provoked the crossers, knowing they would provide the perfect moment to step forward and regain possession.

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

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When Arsenal had to steel themselves against the pressure of their own making, they did so. From the 77th minute until the final whistle, United registered just one shot. During the entire match they only allowed 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 bell became their greatest weapon, David Raya sat on every cross. Jakub Kiwior and Jorginho battled it out, just in case.

Their nerves were frayed, their possession play was idiosyncratic, but when the stakes were as high as they had been in a generation, Arsenal got the job done. The title race continues to the final day. They may find out in seven days that they haven’t done enough to stay ahead of Manchester City, but at least Mikel Arteta’s men will get the champions winning again.

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