Rudderless Arsenal exposed by clinical United
In fairness, the performance was closer to 2-8 than 1-2. The final scoreline flattered Arsenal, indicating a balanced match perhaps decided by a moment of ingenuity or two. But it could have been a tennis scoreline, again, at Old Trafford for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger must know it.
Get this: Wenger left his seat in the dugout on Saturday early in the first half, some time soon after Robin Van Persie scored in the third minute against his former club to give United the lead. Wenger never went back. Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, never bothered to leave his throne. He chewed his gum, chewed them faster when United scored or went close to scoring, but that was pretty much that.
Asked afterwards about the game, Ferguson sounded like a man who had ordered champagne but had been served cough syrup instead. "That was not the usual Manchester United-Arsenal game really," he said, looking almost embarrassed. "They never did really ... (it was) not anywhere near the Manchester United-Arsenal games of the past. Nowhere near that. It was a strange game."
It was strange indeed. An accomplished midfield made up of Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, quality-wise among the best the Premiership has to offer, was simply overrun and bullied into submission. Ferguson probably benefited from the absence of Abou Diaby, a strong physical presence, from the Arsenal midfield but it was not as if the Scotsman deployed a conventional defensive midfielder who broke up the play. What Ferguson did, was to hand the job to the elegant Tom Cleverley, who showed impressive aptitude for his new role.
For Arsenal, they simply needed to bide their time and find rhythm. It was a time for patience. But passes were over-hit, enough chances were not created and there was little communication between their forwards and midfield. They enjoyed a healthy percentage of the ball, but nothing came of it. Their first shot on target came in the 24th minute. They came across like a third-division team that had won a lottery of an FA Cup replay at Old Trafford. They looked intimidated, they looked overawed, and they looked afraid.
The fear factor probably had to do with playing at Old Trafford for the first time since the 2-8 shellacking last season, playing a United they had beaten only once in their last 10 matches, playing a United that had Van Persie.
Prior to kick-off, as the teams lined up in the tunnel, Van Persie sought out each one of his former team-mates, shaking their hand and embracing them. Once on the pitch however, it was all business. Having given his new side the lead as early as the third minute, the Dutchman refused to celebrate, out of respect for the club he represented for eight years.
It was a touch of class that was in stark contrast to the provocative celebration of Emmanuel Adebayor in front of the Arsenal fans after scoring for his new club Manchester City, and more recently, the boos from a section of the Arsenal fans on Saturday who jeered every touch of their former captain.
That sort of class was something Wenger could have done with on Saturday, and he certainly could have done with the sort of sacrifice Wayne Rooney displayed against Arsenal. When you are as talented as Wayne Rooney, you normally wouldn't fancy retreating into the field to clear a ball that's bobbing about dangerously or breaking up the opposition's build-up play. "I am a racehorse," he could have been forgiven for thinking. "Give me the ball and I'll run right through the line."
That's what marks out Rooney from the rest. He was everywhere against Arsenal, near the halfway line breaking up attacks, tracking back three quarters of the field to help out the defence, running at wingers and sending through countless through balls that could have killed the game if his team-mates had converted them. He also missed a penalty, but it was his tactical evolution that emerged as the most striking aspect from the match. Rooney has scored only two goals this season, but has five assists.
Van Persie, who is also renowned for his excellent link-up play, was so impressed with his new colleague that he said neither of the two is a conventional No.9 or No.10. "I call it a 9 and a half because you have two positions - the No. 9 and the No. 10 - and we are both 9 and a half!" he quipped.
"I think he's right," said Ferguson. "They're both mobile players and good footballers with a great desire to play and win. I don't think you saw the best of them as a partnership against Arsenal."
As the United juggernaut gradually clicks into gear, rivals are bound to endure sleepless nights at the prospect of a free-scoring Van Persie-Rooney duo. If United keep improving at the same rate, they'll find out soon enough.
More about Arun Pradeep
Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
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