LONDON -- Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta this week described Champions League qualification as a "game-changer," and Saturday's chaotic 3-1 victory over Manchester United underlined why the clubs vying for fourth place in the Premier League need it so desperately.
It is perhaps the biggest indictment of the flaws and inconsistencies in both the Gunners and Tottenham Hotspur that United still had a shot at a top-four finish before kick-off despite Ralf Rangnick barely disguising his dismay at the scale of the rebuild at Old Trafford ahead of incoming manager Erik ten Hag.
United's interim boss had described the job of reviving United's fortunes as "open-heart surgery" but for the first few minutes here, they barely had a pulse. Arsenal went ahead inside three minutes as David De Gea saved from Bukayo Saka only for Nuno Tavares to bundle in the rebound.
In fairness, United responded well -- far better than the meek midweek surrender at Liverpool -- and went close on several occasions, but if the decision to drop Harry Maguire was meant to instigate an improvement in United's defending, it categorically failed.
Saka doubled Arsenal's lead from the penalty spot on 32 minutes after Arsenal initially had a second goal ruled out for offside, only for VAR to correctly identify a foul in the box by Alex Telles in the build-up.
Cristiano Ronaldo responded two minutes later with his 100th Premier League goal via a smart left-footed finish -- albeit an intervention aided by more terrible Arsenal defending, this time from Gabriel -- and that moment seemed to unsettle the home side. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale thrashed a clearance into the stand. Cedric Soares sliced another behind for a corner to howls of derision from the Emirates Stadium crowd.
United were the better team -- with Ronaldo denied an equaliser through a tight offside call -- and should have equalised when Bruno Fernandes had the chance to convert a 57th-minute penalty. But the midfielder hit the outside of the post with his spot kick, and 13 minutes later he gave the ball away, giving Granit Xhaka the chance to rifle home a 25-yard shot that settled the contest. That Xhaka strike also survived a VAR check as Eddie Nketiah looked to have impeded De Gea's line of sight.
The fall from grace from the time these two teams constituted a duopoly at the top of the Premier League either side of the turn of the century has been well documented, but everywhere you looked here there were head-shaking reminders of the yawning gap that now exists to Liverpool and Manchester City in particular. Nuno Tavares' positioning, Telles' defending, Nemanja Matic still somehow being part of United's midfield in a game of this magnitude -- so many aspects of this game are unrecognisable from the powerhouse tussles of old. Neither team can be relied upon for any consistency if they continue to defend like this and yet, back-to-back wins -- following three consecutive defeats -- elevated Arsenal into fourth place ahead of Tottenham's trip to Brentford later in the day.
"My belief is that we are going to give it a real go; we can win football matches, but the margins are going to be really small and we have to be very aware of that," Arteta said postmatch. "Winning and losing in this league and where we are today is defined by the small margins, and we have to take the game where we want to win in the 95 minutes."
The game turned on Fernandes' missed penalty. Rangnick revealed afterwards that Ronaldo "felt he couldn't take it" and so the responsibility was passed to his Portugal teammate. But Fernandes was so wasteful in open play that the worst thing he could have done was turn his penalty into a pass, rolling the ball against Ramsdale's right-hand post.
United have made few player commitments in their present state of flux, with Ten Hag incoming and Rangnick almost desperate to move away from this squad and upstairs so the cull can begin, yet they decided to hand Fernandes an improved contract despite his previous deal expiring in 2025.
If he is to be the focal point of a new United side, the 27-year-old has to find more efficiency in his play than this. He spent more time berating referee Craig Pawson than talking to his teammates and was perhaps fortunate not to be sent off late on for a tackle on Tavares. Contrast his contribution with that of Saka, who continued his penalty redemption with a coolly taken spot kick, or opposing captain Martin Odegaard, who ended the afternoon with the domestic broadcaster's Man of the Match award for another influential display.
United's problems run far deeper than Fernandes, of course, and they showed enough in attack to feel somewhat hard done by, with Rangnick questioning several VAR decisions.
"There was another handball issue in the first half [involving Cedric] when Jadon Sancho was involved," he began. "The second goal of Cristiano was not offside. You could even see it in that total perspective: they were exactly in one line. Their third goal was clearly offside -- I spoke to David De Gea after the game, and he said he couldn't see the ball because Nketiah was in between Granit and himself. They checked it, but for whatever reason they gave the goal.
"But again, this is why we have a VAR, and you should expect if the referee plus the VAR check, they should in the end take the right decision. We were at least unlucky, but again, we have to get better at defending the box. Five, six weeks ago we were on a higher level."
It doesn't reflect well on either of these clubs to think about the higher levels they used to be on, but Arsenal are masking their deficiencies better than most right now. And that might be enough to secure fourth place and a return to the Champions League, which brings the chance to accelerate much-needed change.