LONDON — Arsenal paid the big bucks to sign Declan Rice for a reason.
In truth, it wasn’t primarily for his goal scoring, but then again, the £105 million man has made it a personal mission to improve his end product, and Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Manchester United was quite a spectacular way to start.
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Rice’s first Gunners goal came in the sixth minute of added time with the score level at 1-1, squeezing a deflected shot inside André Onana’s near post to spark Emirates Stadium euphoria. The game had been on a knife edge after Martin Odegaard cancelled out Marcus Rashford’s first-half opener for United with substitute Alejandro Garnacho denied what could have been the winning goal by a marginal — but correct — VAR review for offside in the 88th minute.
Yet Rice turned the game decisively in Arsenal’s favour before Gabriel Jesus added a third even deeper into added-on time to spark the sort of jubilation associated with a title run, rather than in early September. Arsenal are often criticised for over-celebrating, but the explanation here is simple. Of course, the opponent — an old adversary — makes winning sweeter but of more immediate pertinence is the need to maintain pace with Manchester City, an admittedly absurd premise at first glance given the Premier League season is only four games old.
Arsenal reached 50 points at the halfway stage last season and failed to win the title — City have raised the bar to the extent the margin for error is smaller than ever, and entering the first international break with 10 points from a possible 12 — two behind City — is a significant boost for Arsenal’s self-belief.
Rice was acquired at great expense from West Ham to bridge the gap, and his all-round display ultimately proved a match-winning contribution. Could this be the first of many goals from their new midfield man?
“For sure, when you see the technical ability that he has and how he executed in this these moments,” said Gunners boss Mikel Arteta. “His range when shooting from accuracy and the power he generates with no space, that’s with both legs, he can do it with both feet. He’s got the timing as well to arrive in the box. The position will dictate that a lot because it’s about how you arrive in the box. But he’s got the ability to do that, that’s for sure.
“When you look at how a holding midfielder needs to dominate his area, how he needs to break up play, how he glided the team together when they were stretched a bit. Then he produced a magic moment to win us the game, so, really happy with him.”
It was also Rice’s drive forward that led to Kai Havertz, generally subdued once again, going down in the box for a penalty overturned on VAR review, as he sought to alter an unusually cautious first half from the home side.
Arsenal had just 45 percent possession in the first half. They usually dominate opponents on their own turf — aside from Brighton’s deserved win here in May, when they took control of proceedings in impressive fashion — and no team had enjoyed more of the ball in the opening 45 minutes since January 2022. The opposition that day was also United, a clear sign that Arteta is inherently wary of the counterattacking threat Rashford once again ruthlessly demonstrated on Sunday.
“The first goal that we gave away we talked about it, if you lose the ball inside the first two passes after regaining it, you are kaput,” Arteta said. “We did it again.”
Rice won four of his five duels and all three aerial challenges, recovering the ball five times in all. But more than that, he helped Arsenal play more on the front foot in the second period — ending with 55 percent possession overall but more significantly, creating good chances with Bukayo Saka guilty of missing the best of them when clean through nine minutes from the end.
United will rue the fine margin of Garnacho’s disallowed goal and failing to capitalise on a promising cameo by their own big-money summer signing, £72m Rasmus Hojlund, who gave the visitors a more potent threat than Anthony Martial will probably ever be when introduced on 67 minutes. There will be plenty more to come from him, but it was a damning indictment of United’s summer window that they ended this game with 35-year-old Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire at centre-back, while Sofyan Amrabat was not ready to feature at all.
In mitigation, United have suffered badly with injuries at centre-back with Lisandro Martínez and Victor Lindelöf forced off here to join Raphaël Varane and Luke Shaw on the sidelines. Yet re-signing Evans and using Maguire, who they were desperate to offload all summer and was actually cheered by Arsenal fans upon his introduction, underlines the lack of prudent squad planning, as does acquiring Amrabat so late in the window, when he had been ready to leave Fiorentina in July if the clubs could agree a fee.
Already, it once again appears United are some considerable distance away from closing the gap to City, an aim both of these teams harbour but that Arsenal look much more equipped to take on. They are yet to be entirely convincing in any game this season, it must be said, but the Gunners have found a way to win three of their four games, and on Sunday, the club-record buy made the difference.
As Arteta put it: “Big matches are for big players, and Rice was tremendous.”