A few weeks ago, as Manchester United prepared to face Chelsea, Louis van Gaal spoke to the press of the need for his United to have their "Juventus moment". He was referring to his time in charge of Bayern Munich, when a 4-1 win over the Italians in crystallised what he was trying to do with the Germans, and turned an inconsistent team into a double-winning machine.
Some felt that the Juventus moment arrived after that game, thanks to Robin van Persie's late equaliser. More likely, though, is that Monday's papers will hail Saturday evening's 2-1 win over Arsenal as that moment. Obviously, this is an exercise in projection: how will the present look in the future, once it's the past? But writing tomorrow's history books today is half the fun of football — the other half is own goals — and there is a decent case for this win amounting to something significant. At least for United.
After a startlingly shambolic opening 25 minutes, in which Arsenal strolled through United's defence with casual, almost insulting ease, United firmed up. More to the point, United looked, for perhaps the first time this season, like a side with a plan and with the chops to execute that plan. Marouane Fellaini was excellent in his familiar role as a huge inconvenience to the opposition, but also looked remarkably decent as a midfielder. Ashley Young — Ashley Young! — looked like a wing-back. And Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair managed not to look like the children they are.
More generally. United at times looked like they knew what they were trying to do. Before kick-off, the switch back to the three-man defence was largely ascribed to the ongoing hilarity with injuries, but it's worth bearing in mind that van Gaal's use of the formation with the Netherlands was designed to let a defensively vulnerable shaky side defend deep, then counter-attack against possession-heavy teams. With Angel di Maria pretending to be Arjen Robben, and Wayne Rooney running farther and harder than Wesley Sneijder ever did, United were able to cope with the fact Robin van Persie's impression of Robin van Persie is getting ever more depressing.
Obviously, there was much good fortune involved. David de Gea dealt excellently with nearly everything Arsenal kicked straight at him, but they really did kick nearly everything straight at him. Alexis Sanchez, perhaps feeling the effects of his efforts with Chile, was unusually subdued. Jack Wilshere's forced removal from the midfield certainly helped, as did Arsene Wenger's strange removal of Aaron Ramsey. And no plan can claim credit for an own goal as profoundly farcical as the first goal, as Kieran Gibbs first injured himself and his own goalkeeper before deflecting a Valencia clank into his own net. Unless, of course, that plan reads: let Arsenal Arsenal themselves in the face.
But then, perhaps that's what a Juventus moment takes: not just a suggestion of footballing ability, but also for the luck to start running the right way. Van Gaal and his players have certainly been guilty of some peculiar, mistaken and downright baffling decisions this season, but they have also run into some strange rubs of the green, most notably the extraordinary catalogue of fitness issues. Luck plays a part in almost everything that happens on and off the pitch, and when Luke Shaw limped off and Jack "Hold Me Back" Wilshere mysteriously stayed on, it looked like United were going to subside. Then, mysteriously, they didn't.
Maybe Arsenal are just the only big side more cursed than United. But more luck comes from the league table. United have two points fewer than they did at this stage last year, and they sit two places higher, in a Champions League place. Everybody, Chelsea aside, is rubbish; in such company, even a side as unbalanced as United can get away with it from time to time. With two friendly-looking home games coming next, van Gaal has the chance to stitch a few wins together, as he was supposed to do at the beginning of the season, and to build a bit of confidence and momentum ahead of their next tricky moment, back-to-back games against Southampton and Liverpool.
When it comes to Juventus moments, United have their own: that ludicrous, lunatic, Keane-covering-every-blade-of-grass performance by in the 1999 Champions League semi-final. This United team, compared to that one, are a miserable rabble. Yet it is to that level that van Gaal is charged with returning United: to the top of the table, to the sharp end of Europe, to the relentless, remorseless machine. The path from one Juventus moment to another still looks like a long one, but United will be feeling that after this victory — strange confection of spirit and luck and oh, Arsenal though it was — it might not be completely unnavigable.