William Saliba marshals champion defensive unit to keep Arsenal in race

<span>William Saliba produced a performance that felt like a 90-minute celebration of his wonderful season.</span><span>Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters</span>
William Saliba produced a performance that felt like a 90-minute celebration of his wonderful season.Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Even the weather seemed to want this match done. By the time the final whistle blew at Old Trafford the skies had already broken open, pounding the turf with English summer rain, gluing Erik ten Hag’s ill-advised houndstooth summer sports jacket to his shoulders, leaving Mikel Arteta squelching across in skintight all-black to punch the air in celebration of a 1-0 win that leaves Arsenal top of the table, right up until the next time they’re not.

This is not the end, as long as we can still say: this is the end. The title race will now tick down into the final week of the season, which is a thing in itself given the might of the Manchester City machine.

Related: Arsenal keep up title pressure as Trossard sinks Manchester United

And, who knows? Tottenham, we hear, only have one way to play. It’s just not a very good way of late. Either way Arsenal’s neighbours can still qualify for the Champions League. Nobody is going to want to lose to City on Tuesday night. They just probably will.

In the meantime this was a low-key, room temperature kind of away win for Arsenal, an obligation discharged, another date ticked off. For all Manchester United’s diffuse second-half energy Arsenal were always able to keep them at a distance, like an older brother laying a restraining palm on the forehead while your arms wheel away, haymakers thrown, face flushed, never quite in danger of landing.

There are different ways to win matches, not least in the dog days of the season. One of those ways is to play Manchester United in their annual end-of-year existential crisis mode. Another is to win as Arsenal did here, by trusting in your own wonderfully resilient defence, a foundation laid over the last two years, and a line that never looked like being broken at Old Trafford.

William Saliba in particular produced a performance that felt like a 90-minute celebration of his own wonderful season, 37 games and counting in the Premier League. He touched the ball 99 times, more than anyone else on the pitch, completed 76 of his 84 passes, made four tackles, six clearances and won three clear defensive headers.

There was even a moment of cinema midway through the second half as United roused themselves vaguely. Alejandro Garnacho found a lane of space and went haring in off the left. Saliba was the last man between Garnacho and David Raya. He waited, waited a little longer, then produced a beautifully balanced statement-tackle, the Bobby Moore, side-on, one foot left in, extracting the ball with surgical ease, keeping his balance, then romping away upfield.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Arsenal’s central defence contains two of the top four least-dribbled-past defenders in the Premier League along with Virgil van Dijk and Ezri Konsa. It has been a formidable display of craft and consistency, not just the last line, but something that affects every other part of the team, the referred strength of that human shield.

It was Saliba’s absence late on last season that coincided with Arsenal’s relative collapse in the final knocking. This team may or may not end up winning a title. But this is a champion defensive partnership, and still in its prime years.

As for Manchester United, they were good at times, even oddly carefree. Amad Diallo is a lovely dribbler, so slick with his switch of feet. Presumably there are very good reasons why a player this talented doesn’t get more chances in a team this constipated.

Sofyan Amrabat, Jonny Evans, Diallo and Scott McTominay is definitely a list of professional footballers. But this was surely one of the most hurled together, cut-and-paste Manchester United XIs of the Premier League era. Casemiro was once again moonlighting in central defence. United did still have £86m of talent on the bench. Unfortunately all of that £86m was Antony.

In the end it was United’s own horribly depleted defence that decided the game. The tactic seemed to be: protect Casemiro at all costs. Out of possession United fell into a defensive double-pivot (in front of Casemiro), and in front of that another hustling, pressing double-pivot in the shape of McTominay-Højlund (also in front of Casemiro). Never mind the goal. We protect Casemiro. Maybe André Onana could also have stood in front of him.

Related: ‘Live the final day’: Mikel Arteta dreams of title after win at United sets up climax

And yet the only goal after 20 minutes was still essentially Casemiro’s fault. This was terrible defending. The Brazilian came jogging out as United cleared the ball, then found himself stranded behind every other red shirt as Arsenal stole it back. This wasn’t a lack of pace. It was a lack of bothering to move. Even slow running is running, and slow running would have been enough here.

  • Download the Guardian app from the iOS App Store on iPhone or the Google Play store on Android by searching for 'The Guardian'.

  • If you already have the Guardian app, make sure you’re on the most recent version.

  • In the Guardian app, tap the Menu button at the bottom right, then go to Settings (the gear icon), then Notifications.

  • Turn on sport notifications.

Kai Havertz would later tell Sky Sports that he saw Casemiro still in there and shouted to Ben White for the pass. After which Havertz just did the things he does these days, skating to the byline and pulling back the perfect go-on-then pass to meet Leandro Trossard’s run between a line of static red shirts.

And that was pretty much that. If Arsenal are to lose the league now the obvious cause and effect will be those three weeks in December when they dropped 11 points across five games and the players just looked spent. For now City go to Spurs on Tuesday, and then host West Ham on Sunday. Close your eyes and it’s almost a cliffhanger. One that will, whatever happens now, run to the end.