Manchester United vs. Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
These two are by a country mile the best ever in the Premier League. If Sir Alex hadn't been around, we might be talking of Arsene as the best of the lot.
In his prematch interview on Sky Sports, Wenger characterised the relationship between the two as "respectful." No doubt without that there would have been no question of selling Robin Van Persie to United.
Of course the French "professor" will have had sleepless nights both before and after that transfer. He tried all he could to keep the Dutchman but did at least see him evade the clutches of the Manchester City retirement home for former Arsenal players.
If RVP had gone to the Etihad instead of Old Trafford, both managers might have been ruing their misfortune by now.
He might well come to be regarded as one of the most intelligent and skillful players ever to have graced the Premier League after he retires. He has certainly helped allay the fears of what happens at United after Paul Scholes retires. Paul who...?
And so it was, in the blinding sunshine of a Manchester Saturday afternoon (yes, you read that correctly) that Robin "Redbreast" performed precisely to the script, sending United supporters delirious and, at least for a few minutes, silencing his former fans.
Sir Alex described this as a "strange game," and so it was. At times it was like a midfield chess match, but there was only ever going to be one winner, even though United at times behaved as if they were feeling sorry for the paucity of the opposition threat.
It was probably an eerie feeling for Van Persie when he scored. He seemed to raise his hands almost in apology to the Arsenal fans. From that moment on, United behaved as if they were embarrassed to score as well.
Manchester United Will Bury Someone Soon
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Last season United crushed Arsenal 8-2. The result today should have been approaching that.
If you were to look at the statistics, you might not come to that conclusion. They show that Arsenal had 52 percent of the possession and United had 11 shots to Arsenal's five.The Gunners had only two shots on target, one of which was Santi Cazorla's goal with the last kick.
To say this was like a training match for United would not be to exaggerate the point. There is no explicit or implicit criticism of the Gunners beyond a couple of individual mistakes, but the much-trumpeted signings and the apparently stronger physical presence simply never materialised.
Indeed, one is struggling to accept the possession stats, such was United's domination. Sir Alex will probably have been raging again at the end because apart from once again allowing a last-minute goal (Wednesday's turned round the result), United were profligate in every sense today.
They squandered wide-open chances (including yet another penalty, their fourth miss of this young season) and could easily have been home and hosed at halftime, such was their utter dominance.
They had the look of a team with goals in them from all over the field. Apart from Van Persie and Evra, who scored, and Rooney, who missed, Valencia, Young, Carrick and Anderson might all have scored.
When they attacked, United did so as a team, with the fluency of passing and close interchange that we have been accustomed to seeing from Arsenal in their pomp.
While Rooney looked a little out of sorts, especially after his head dropped because of the penalty miss, everybody else looked in a rich vein of form.
Behind the starting players are Welbeck, Chicharito, Nani, Jones, Smalling, Vidic, Scholes and Giggs waiting for their own chances to shine. After Giggs' astonishing showing on Wednesday and the burgeoning promise of players like Wootton, Keane and Powell as well, Sir Alex now has the sort of selection problem he must love.
He also has the ability to vary the personnel, change the formation and bring on yet another dangerous pair of legs at will.
It is said that Van Persie is still developing his understanding, especially with Rooney and the other attacking players around him.
So far, he has scored 10 goals in 11 starts. Rooney has two from eight. If he alone starts scoring at a similar rate to his strike partner, United are going to get another "cricket score," and with Villa, Norwich, QPR, West Ham and Reading next on the Premier League menu, who would bet against it?
Rooney Must Not Take the Penalties
Wayne Rooney Misses Against Arsenal 2010
Yes. Rooney has "previous."
This was his extravagant missed penalty at home against Arsenal in 2010, just under two years ago. Today's was in a similar vein.
One would have to imagine he is suffering something of a confidence gap. If you were to watch him on "Wayne Rooney's Street Striker" showing off his consummate skills in putting the ball on a sixpence or knocking down cans of paint from 20 yards, you'd have to wonder how he ever misses the goal.
In fact, it comes to mind that he wasn't exactly bulging the net in the warm-up either.
He could be said to have been unlucky today with at least one full-blooded shot that Mannone saved well. But the penalty miss was frankly embarrassing.
Going for the bottom corner, he missed the goal completely, scuffing his shot and rolling over the top of it.
This simply won't do. Rooney isn't the only culprit. When he was out earlier in the season, Nani boldly stepped up to take a penalty; the crowd collectively groaned. And of course he missed.
One is reminded that at Arsenal in the days of Wenger's great title-winning team, Lee Dixon used to take them. Ryan Giggs took an excellent, consummate penalty on Wednesday, but he doesn't feature in many games these days.
Anderson loves to take penalties and lapped his up in the Champions League Final win against Chelsea in Moscow.
Here's hoping that United aren't getting the "English disease"; this penalty-missing thing can become a worrying habit.
We all know Ferguson wants 25 goals each from Van Persie and Rooney. Wayne is doing marvellously all over the pitch at the moment, but he isn't scoring goals.
Sir Alex has to leave sentiment aside for the time being and give the penalty taking to Van Persie until Wayne's busting his door down with goal-scoring and desperation to have the job back.
But for the time being, Rooney must not take the penalties.
Jack Wilshere Is Back—with a Bang
Jack Wilshere is Leaving the Room
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
For Arsenal and England fans, it was the moment they had waited 14 months for: Jack Wilshere's return against QPR last week. With that shaky win under his belt, surely he was ready for the big challenge of returning to Old Trafford?
He was certainly up for it and was his old uncompromising self. The way he threw himself around and launched into extreme physical tackles suggested he was now well over his injury nightmare.
The trouble was that the abject performance of the team around him and the long time a-coming seemed to have got to him. He let out all his pent-up frustration in a series of lunges, and he was an accident waiting to happen.
However, Wilshere was sent off for a total of four reckless challenges and had already had his final warning when he took exception to Patrice Evra trying to go past him.
But here's the big pity. He is an immensely talented young Englishman. He was the man most likely to make a difference when he was on the pitch, because United had Cazorla pretty much shackled. The dangerous Spaniard was found more often in front of his own penalty area than the United one.
England have missed Wilshere. He will one day have a formidable partnership with Tom Cleverley. He can be the X factor for Arsenal this season now that he's back.
But he'll have to moderate the X-rated tackles first.
Carrick, Cleverley and Anderson Are the Way Forward
Carrick and Cleverley with Rooney
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Breaking News! Manchester United have at last found the creative midfield player they have been seeking, and his name is...
He was here the whole time. For years, supporters have been singing and chanting his name and hoping against hope that the real Anderson would show up.
At the start of last season, it looked like United had found a marriage made in heaven with Anderson and Cleverley on fire. Then they both got injured, and Anderson lost his form.
Sir Alex has been dropping hints for the last couple of weeks. Anderson was man of the match against Chelsea on Wednesday, despite Ryan Giggs' stellar performance. It was just that his legs seemed to go towards the end of the match.
From the moment he came on this afternoon to save Tom Cleverley from himself, Anderson looked at his very best.
His confidence is back; he is running past and through opposition players as if they weren't there; he's cutting defences apart with scything passe; and he's hitting looping 50-yard balls in the manner of Paul Scholes.
If he can only perfect the art of scoring goals, he could well be the creative midfield player that Sir Alex was looking for when he tried to sign fellow Brazilian Lucas this summer.
The other thing that has stood out from the win at Chelsea and today is that Carrick and Cleverley, with Anderson in reserve, gave Sir Alex all the midfield flexibility that he needs.
You will recall from these columns that we have been concerned that when the manager pairs Carrick and Scholes, they both play too deep. This is mainly because Paul sits right on top of the United penalty area, even further back than Michael.
Today we saw exactly what Sir Alex has been desperate to achieve. United defended just inside their own half and built their attacking movements from the same foundation. When United play this high line, with their interchanging attacking players, they can be irresistible and unstoppable.
It's just that they lapsed back into training ground exercises across the back for much of the second half for some unknown reason.
When Carrick and Cleverley play together as they did today, they can dominate midfield. Both are good at covering and breaking up play. Cleverley is particularly tireless.
But Carrick then knows he can sit in the holding role his manager wants, without worrying that his playing partner is somewhere behind him. Tom loves to attack all the way into the opposition penalty area, linking play all across the pitch.
And when Michael has the chance to run at the defence, Tom drops back into the slot behind him.
So that means Sir Alex can play 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or the infamous "diamond" (4-3-1-2) at will because Carrick and Cleverley can fit seamlessly into any of them.
But the big bonus is that he can have those two and Anderson in a 4-3-3 if he wishes; he can bring on Anderson as he did today (whereupon he improved United's play) or even start him in place of Tom against lesser teams when United want to attack throughout.
Finally, although Darren Fletcher can only play one match a week at most due to his condition, Sir Alex can alternate Carrick and Fletcher at will and even, in the crunch matches, play both.
At last, it seems as if the midfield conundrum could be solved. And with Scholes and Giggs still around and Kagawa, Rooney, Young and Van Persie also prepared to drop into midfield at will during a match, we can expect to see United dominating even more sides.
They certainly had the drop on Arsenal today.
Jonny Evans Is the Best Centre-Back in the Premier League
Rooney & Evans
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Last season, Vincent Kompany was unquestionably the best centre-back in the Premier League. Recently, Manchester City's defence has been a bit shaky. Whether this has something to do with trying three at the back or because City are now the team to beat, Kompany doesn't seem quite so sharp.
Based on today's performance, Jonny Evans is right up there. He didn't put a foot or a head wrong. Playing in Nemanja Vidic's preferred position, he looked every bit as much in control as his mentor has in recent years.
OK, you say, he didn't have that much to mark. Well, actually, he had last season's top scorer in the French League to look after. Maybe Olivier Giroud hasn't taken the Premier League by storm, but he was completely ineffectual this afternoon.
This is no isolated performance by Evans. He is arguably an automatic first choice for United now. When Vidic is fit, surely it will be Ferdinand who makes way rather than Evans.
To see how good he has become, you need look no further than his world-class performance for Northern Ireland against Portugal in mid-October. As the Daily Mail put it:
Portugal were made to look third-rate, rather than third best in the world, by a disciplined, determined Northern Ireland side marshaled expertly by a brilliant exhibition of poise and flawless positioning by an inspired Jonny Evans.
And as his manager said:
I have had Jonny for four games now, and he has been a joy to work with. He is going to be a leader of men, within any team he plays for. I have seen that recently with his performances for Manchester United, and I thought his composure on the ball and leadership qualities were fantastic.
Evans has had his occasional lapses in the past, as when he played against Manchester City last season, but now he is producing one flawless, commanding performance after another.
He is following in the footsteps of great centre-backs at Old Trafford like Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Bill Foulkes, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Jaap Stam. Still only 24, Evans is shaping up to be the best of them all.
The Crowd Is Back Thanks to Robin Van Persie
Robin Van Persie
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Far too often in recent seasons, Old Trafford has been like a cathedral. Maybe it was because fans sensed that United were struggling to sustain their previous pre-eminence?
With Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs nearing the end of their careers and several other senior players in their 30s, the concern would have to be that United were sliding down the same road as Chelsea: the end of a generation.
But that is to underestimate the immortal powers of Sir Alex.
It may had been a "no-brainer" to some fans to spend £24 million on a 29-year-old player, but Sir Alex revealed this week that United had looked seriously at Robin Van Persie when he made his debut for Feyenoord at 16. He was apparently undisciplined, and United passed on him.
But the crowd is back and in full voice at Old Trafford. This was suddenly and abundantly clear halfway through the first half this afternoon.
Scoring after three minutes and silencing the travelling Arsenal fans, the Stretford End had a new hero. They stole Arsenal's old anthem to their former treasure. When the Arsenal fans booed, they were drowned by cheers in a nanosecond.
But it was not just the recurring singing of Van Persie's name. It was the general noise level of the crowd. United utterly dominated Arsenal while failing to put the game to bed, but the crowd didn't settle into the stunned silence of the past. They remained in full voice.
So is it just possible that the crowd is back, and it is this man who has wrought the miracle? He may turn out to be one of the greatest signings at Old Trafford ever. There are plenty of signs that he can be the catalyst that Eric Cantona was.
Robin Van Persie is one of the most intelligent and technically gifted players ever at Manchester United. The crowd recognise that. They are moved by his decision to turn down City and choose their beloved team.
They sense he can not only bring the Premier League trophy back to United, but also catalyse the next dynasty of success.
The crowd is back; they're noisy. Robin Van Persie is the reason.