Arsenal downs Manchester United in instant classic, and rings in a new Premier League era

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The balance of power in the English Premier League had already begun to shift long before a precious yellow ball floated toward Eddie Nketiah at the far post, in the 90th minute of an instant classic.

It had shifted long before Arsenal and Manchester United sparred for 90 thrilling minutes at the Emirates on Sunday, just like the Arsenal and Manchester United of old. They traded goals by homegrown stars and spells of ascendancy.

They were level at 2-2, with United nearly submerged and Arsenal unsatisfied, when bodies converged near the penalty spot, and that ball emerged, spinning toward a stealthy Nketiah. He guided it into a gaping net, and gave Arsenal a 3-2 win, and cued an explosion.

He capped a captivating game with the dramatic conclusion it deserved, and christened a new Premier League era.

Arsenal, whose relative mediocrity had been the butt of jokes for roughly a decade, had already built a somewhat commanding lead atop the league it hasn't won since 2004. It had already entered its own new era, guided by young-20-somethings and a sharp-as-can-be manager, Mikel Arteta. They had propelled Arsenal effectively eight points clear of the reigning king, Manchester City. They had proven themselves capable of challenging for a title.

But Sunday's reigniting of the rivalry that defined the turn-of-the-century Premier League spoke to something deeper, something bigger.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22: Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal celebrates scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22: Eddie Nketiah of Arsenal celebrates scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

For nearly half a decade, the league had largely devolved into two-horse races, and sometimes yielded to runaway winners. Manchester City and Liverpool had established dual-hegemony, and neither looked like loosening their grip. England, it seemed, had gone the way of Spain and other top European leagues, whose true contenders can always be counted on one hand, if not with one finger.

But England had only done so because Arsenal was wayward, and Chelsea was inconsistent, and United was mismanaged and directionless.

Sunday was Arsenal's day, the punctuation of a turnaround, proof of concept for a team remade; but it was also about United's return to prominence. It was, on the whole, a reminder that sleeping giants are, in fact, still giants.

Five, and perhaps even six clubs are financially capable of competing for Premier League crowns, and there are no longer only two whose players and coaches and executives are capable. City and Liverpool ran away from the pack because they were powered by superior expertise, not just by superior bank accounts; but they no longer are.

Now they have worthy contemporaries. Now Liverpool's stars have aged, and the shrewd front office that brought them to the club has slowly crumbled. Key decision-makers and analysts have left. The Reds have struggled and slipped, back into the middle of the pack.

Arsenal, meanwhile, has risen, faster than even its own diehard Gooners could have imagined.

United, finally, has stepped out of the Dark Ages, and is actually being run like a modern football club. It has recovered from a calamitous start to the 2022-23 season. It has its own sharp manager, Erik Ten Hag, who seems competent enough to lead United back to soccer's summits.

The Red Devils are a couple years behind their old rivals, and that became evident as Sunday's second half wore on, after Lisandro Martinez's brilliant header had leveled the match at 2-2. Arsenal, a team of once-disparaged veterans and transfer-market bargains and exuberant youngsters, overwhelmed the Red Devils over the game's tense final 15 minutes.

They ultimately won that game and control of the title race. They are, it must be said, only halfway there, and Man City still appears twice on their calendar. They could yet stumble; City, according to most analytical models, remains the most fearsome team in the land.

But even if Arsenal's drought continues beyond this May, the era of the City-Liverpool duopoly is decidedly over. There are new kids on the block, old clubs with new ambitions and faculties, each eager to define whatever era comes next.