They already trail early pace-setters Manchester City — the only side with four straight wins — by two points, but Mikel Arteta can be satisfied with an encouraging start to the season, notwithstanding the hiccup at home against Fulham.
Until Declan Rice scored the first of two stoppage-time goals to lift the roof off the Emirates, Arsenal did not play like a side who look poised to push City close again, however, and Arteta has plenty to ponder before they return to action at Everton in a fortnight.
The question facing the Spaniard is a familiar one: is winning without playing well reason for encouragement or concern? Plainly, Arteta’s side are yet to hit their stride this season, and Sunday’s last-gasp 3-1 win, though ultimately deserved, was not wholly convincing, much like the one-goal victories over Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace.
The hosts had the VAR to thank for overturning Alejandro Garnacho’s 88th-minute goal for a fractional offside before Rice and substitute Gabriel Jesus both scored in stoppage time as United’s makeshift defence — by that point including Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans — cracked.
Perhaps conscious of their 3-1 defeat by Erik ten Hag’s side at a similar stage of last season, Arsenal were curiously passive against a rag-tag United who were there for the taking, uncharacteristically keeping the handbrake on until their final, decisive push.
If Arsenal were wary of United’s threat on the counter-attack, their concerns were justified in the 27th minute, when Marcus Rashford opened the scoring against the run of play with a magnificent strike after Christian Eriksen turned over possession and released the England forward.
Arsenal’s response was rapid and deadly, demonstrating what Arteta’s team are capable of at their free-flowing and fearless best.
Straight from the kick-off, Arsenal charged down the left in a slick move involving Oleksandr Zinchenko, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli, and Martin Odegaard swept home a first-time finish just 35 seconds after the restart.
The goal, and Arsenal’s late push, underlined the quality, spirit and character in the squad, qualities which they will need while they continue to adjust to new signings.
Most pressing for Arteta is to get the balance right with his midfield, which continued to stutter in the sunshine. Rice did not dominate as Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira once did in the heyday of this fixture, but he was imposing, snapping into tackles and looking to drive the hosts forward.
The goal was his first big moment for the club and could be lift-off for player who is already one of the best in his position but still feels short of fulfilling his potential. By contrast, it was another frustrating afternoon for Kai Havertz, who continues to look like a square peg for his new club.
The goal, and Arsenal’s late push, underlined the quality, spirit and character in the squad
The German fluffed a glorious chance to open the scoring with a mis-kick when the ball fell to him yards from goal and lost possession to Eriksen with a loose pass ahead of Rashford’s opener.
A difficult afternoon for the German was compounded when referee Anthony Taylor reversed his decision to award him a penalty at 1-1 after consulting his pitch-side monitor, and the £65million summer signing was replaced by Fabio Vieira for the final 15 minutes, with the Portuguese assisting Jesus’s cool finish on the break.
Arteta cannot revert to a midfield more in keeping with last season because Granit Xhaka has left the club and Thomas Partey is now facing weeks on the sidelines with a groin injury, leaving the Arsenal boss needing to bed in the Rice-Havertz-Odegaard trio to get his team purring.
As the old adage goes, winning when not playing well is the sign of greatness, and Arteta can point to City, who have often taken a while to get up to speed. Last season, the champions drew two of their opening six matches and did not really hit their stride until after Christmas.
On the flip side, there is a danger Arsenal could get found out by really good opponents — and United do not qualify, particularly given their away record at ‘big-six’ rivals — if they continue to play within themselves.
Arsenal should have enough to overcome struggling Everton without being at their best, but after the visit to Goodison Park they host Ange Postecoglou’s Tottenham, who have made a strong start under the Australian and made far lighter work of United at the other end of the Seven Sisters Road last month.
Ten points from four games leaves Arteta with a solid platform, but performances must improve if Arsenal are to keep pace with City.