United’s record in matches against the top four last season was poor, so Sir Alex Ferguson will have been delighted to walk away from Saturday evening’s match against Arsenal with all three points. With luck on their side, Ferguson’s men got away with a mediocre performance that required a penalty and an own goal to take the honours. But if the manner of the victory was fortunate, then United contributed to its own problems by deploying Wayne Rooney as a lone striker, which left the forward isolated and played into Arsenal’s hands.
United entered the match having played with two strikers throughout seven pre-season games, the Community Shield and three Premier League matches. It was a suprise then when Fergie reverted to type for United’s biggest test of the season, deploying Rooney alone up-front. Ferguson had talked beforehand about countering Arsenal’s new tendency to use three through the centre of midifield. The theory being that Nani and Valencia from the wings would provide ample support. But it was a decision that almost backfired, with Rooney often 30 yards from his nearest team-mates in the opening period, and United’s midfield reduced to punting long balls forward as Arsenal outpassed the home side.
The visitors probably deserved their lead at half-time after Andrei Arshavin’s wonderful strike. Ben Foster, who got both hands to the ball, couldn’t direct the 30-yard effort wide. But Ferguson is a winner and he breeds the same mentality in his troops. United may not have been playing well – possession was lost far too easily in the first 45 – but the team wasn’t about to be beaten meekly. Ferguson’s side, led by the peerless Ryan Giggs, increased the tempo after half time. While the result was certainly not “beyond belief” as Wenger whinged, it was one of those days when the details fell right for United. On other occasions the home side would have paid the price for such sloppy use of the ball.
While Valencia was anonymous on the right wing and Michael Carrick strangely wasteful in possession, Ryan Giggs was superb through the centre of the park. At 35 Giggs’ career should be winding down but on this evidence Fergie can ill afford to leave the Welshman out of the team. Giggs’ ability to change the pace of the game was central to United’s ability to force its way back into the match.
The penalty that brought United back into the game was fortunate but only in so far as Manuel Almunia had no sane reason to make the challenge. Racing out to meet Rooney, who was running away from goal, the Spaniard was always going to make heavy contact. The referee’s decision was spot on, no matter how much Arséne Wenger tries to blow smoke over his own side’s outrageous cheating in the past week.
Indeed, Emmanuel Eboué’s fully deserved yellow card for a blatant dive in the second half exposed the hypocrisy of monsieur Wenger’s faux rage at officialdom in the past week. That Eboué chose to target Evra, who had already been booked, demonstrates the depths to which this Arsenal team is prepared sink. Encouraged by Wenger’s ability to consistently defend the indefensible, the Frenchman’s team has evolved beyond a siege mentality to now act as if they are above all sanction. UEFA and the FA have surely taken note.
There was then some sense of justice in United’s – albeit outrageously lucky – winner. Abou Diaby will forever be an Old Trafford hero for the quality of his headed finish from Giggs’ right wing free kick. That no United player was within yards of the midfielder summed up Diaby’s performance, which was woeful from start to finish. It was a fortunate break but against Wenger’s obduracy all the more satisfying. The Arsenal manager talked about lack of experience in the post-match debrief. Boys against men indeed.
Then came the dénouement and there can have been few funnier scenes at Old Trafford than Wenger’s last-minute dismissal from the touchline. Born of frustration, Wenger booted a water bottle across his technical area. His sanction was obvious but the Frenchman’s refusal to sit in the stands – standing arms outstretched in-between the opposing dugouts – should be met with a lengthy ban. While the League Managers Association chief executive Richard Bevan has stated the Arsenal manager will “receive an apology from the FA,” he also recognised that the decision to send off Wenger was “correct in law.”
That Wenger’s myopia again failed to observe a correct decision by the officials – ruling van Persie’s goal offside – is utterly unsurprising. The man who would be king has become a national embarrassment.
United then will be able to bask in the satisfaction of victory over Arsenal during the two-week international break. It was a hard won match, if an unspectacular performance. But these are the points – and matches – upon which a fourth title in a row may just be built. It could also reignite the old United-Arsenal rivalry, which has been somewhat lukewarm in recent years.