Comfortable, then, was victory for Manchester United over Arsenal on Saturday afternoon, stretching a record against the London opponents to eight wins in the past 10 fixtures. Yet, the 2-1 scoreline at Old Trafford barely tells the full picture of United’s total dominance against an Arsenal so tepid that it is tempting to wonder whether Arsène Wenger still holds the tools to build a championship winning team. The only disappointment on a day that saw Manchester City and Chelsea drop points: United’s failure to demonstrate superiority on the scoreboard.
Indeed, such is Sir Alex Ferguson’s quest for goals this term that United’s open attacking style has heaped the pressure on the Reds’ rearguard – evidenced in just three clean sheets all season.
Still, with Ferguson insistent that United will “never again” lose the Premier League title on goal difference, the manager’s barely disguised irritation at considerable profligacy in front of goal was evident. United’s 13 attempts at goal should have brought far more than Robin van Persie’s smartly taken opener and Patrice Evra’s close range header. The irony in van Persie’s excellent right-footed third minute finish came in the wastefulness that followed.
Yet, Ferguson’s disappointment moved beyond the superficial, to the underlying cause of failure to capitalise on United’s domination – a casual approach that bordered on the complacent despite technical and tactical superiority.
“There was a lack of urgency in our game throughout – we were far too casual, ” admitted Ferguson.
“It was an unusual Manchester United – Arsenal game. There were a lot of bookings but it never really got anywhere near the Manchester United/Arsenal games of the past. I was just really disappointed in our ability to hammer home the advantage.”
Such was the paucity of intensity during the second period that United came far too close to dropping points at Old Trafford for the second time this season. Santi Carzorla’s outstanding injury-time goal brought Arsenal but a late consolation, yet only after Wayne Rooney shanked a second half penalty wide and van Persie missed a sitter just after the hour.
Rooney’s miss, incidentally, his seventh in 20 Premier League penalty attempts over the past decade, and United’s fourth in six this season.
“It looked as if it was going to be self destruction,” said Ferguson in the aftermath. ”It only takes a second to lose a goal.”
“They had some possession without really threatening us, but thank god we got the second one because the fact they scored right on full-time it would have been an embarrassment. The chances we missed – well, we should have put the game to bed a long, long time ago.”
There were some positives though, not least United’s control of a match in which Arsenal never looked capable of mounting a challenge. Indeed, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick bossed midfield while rarely rising above the mundane, while Rooney and van Persie continued to look threatening despite throwing away chances. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were never in anything but total command at the back, without claiming the clean sheet the pair’s performance deserved.
It was van Persie’s day though, highlighted by an inevitable goal and accompanying low-key celebration. Hands reached skywards in apology, van Persie’s reaction was far more respectful of the travelling fans than the 3,000 were of their former hero.
“It was good for Robin to get the goal and he took it very well,” added Sir Alex.
“I thought he was fantastic today – his movement and his penetration were brilliant. He did the right thing [not celebrating]. He had eight great years at Arsenal and he respects that and I thought the Arsenal fans were fine too.”
That is, of course, a generous interpretation of visiting supporters’ repertoire of songs that compared van Persie to a “Dutch Jimmy Savile”, accused the striker of rape and repeatedly labelled the 29-year-old a “c*nt”. Such is the way of modern fandom; a performance that mocks years of north London outrage over abuse Wenger suffered at Old Trafford.
Still, the last laugh is with the Dutchman who was conveniently reminded just why he chose to force a move away from the Emirates this summer. Arsenal’s now seven-year-long search for a trophy will, on this evidence, not be concluded with the Premier League title next May.
United’s squad has its limitations, but Ferguson’s decision to invest so heavily in the – formerly – injury-prone Dutchman is already paying handsome reward.
“In the end it was quite a game, I think we played well,” added van Persie, who has 10 goals in all competitions this season.
“We were a bit sloppy with chances and should have scored two or three more. But in the end we are happy with three points because that is all that matters. It was the first time I have ever played against my former club. It was a special day but in the end it is about the game, which won so I am pleased with that.”
In that Ferguson will be happy too – the three points taking United top of the Premier League for the first time this season. It is November rather than May, but there is a sense of momentum building even if the Reds’ performances have plenty of headroom for improvement.
Ferguson was displeased at the late Arsenal goal, but seemingly more so at United’s placid comfort in a match that should have proffered a thumping victory.
“We should have scored five, six, even more,” added the 70-year-old. “I spoke to the players at the start of the season about the importance of goal difference. We lost the league last season on goal difference and I don’t want it to happen again. We had an opportunity to add to the goal tally today.”
But those are first-place problems compared to Arsenal’s, with Wenger’s side no closer to bringing an end to an extended barren run than at any point over the past seven years. Unrest at the club’s AGM last week, is spilling over into the stands – “we want our Arsenal back,” sangd the visitors at one stage.
It was a brief respite from van Persie’s abuse; anger that would have been so much more vitriolic had the Dutchman and his colleagues notched up the thumping win United’s performance largely deserved.