Arsene Wenger provided a most surreal climax to the Premier League’s first heavyweight clash of the season when he stood amongst United fans after being sent off in the final minute, but the football that proceeded the headline-grabbing last act had already left minds stunned.
After watching their reborn side outplay United for long periods, during which they took the lead through Andrei Arshavin’s spectacular long-range strike, Arsenal supporters must have left The Theatre of Dreams harbouring only nightmares following a fortune-filled and most unlikely turnaround by their old rivals.
Having already been denied a clear penalty by referee Mike Dean in the first half, Arsenal forced Ben Foster into a stunning reflex save and hit the bar before they watched their lead, which should have been more substantial, crumble within a matter of minutes.
First Wayne Rooney converted a penalty which he won himself, after a foul by Manuel Almunia which was no worse than Darren Fletcher’s on Arshavin at the other end, and then only moments later Abou Diaby headed spectacularly into his own net to stir jubilation at Old Trafford.
Rival fans will point once more to United’s seemingly never-ending supply of good fortune, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will not continue to triumph if performances remain as lacklustre as their first-half showing.
With Wayne Rooney receiving little support as United’s lone front man, Arsenal was able to dominate possession and create numerous chances without conceding any themselves. Ryan Giggs was often outpaced and out muscled and the attacking artillery appeared to lack spark without Cristiano Ronaldo, a flaw seen not for the first time this season.
Only when Lady Luck came to their rescue and turned the game on its head did United begin to play with any real confidence or verve. The second-half against Wigan last week, when United smashed in five, was the only time this season when the champions have showed glimpses of their formidable former self.
Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen all shone in that 45 minutes, but when Ferguson only starts one of his attacking trio, as he did here against Arsenal, then the attacking threat appears too easily nulified. It seems at least two will need to play to crank up the match-winner total in the starting eleven.
United do not want the same problem that Liverpool had last season, struggling to break stubborn opponents down, as already seen against Burnley, Arsenal and also in glimpses against Birmingham. They relied on goalkeeping and defensive mistakes against Arsenal but they will not always be gifted goals on future occasions.
Arsenal played better at Old Trafford so should continue to hold heads high and play football like they always have, which we know they will of course. This season Wenger also seems to have instructed his midfielders and forwards to press the ball more, which restricted United and prevented them from playing as freely as they usually are allowed to do against The Gunners.
Lady Luck will not always dig them out of a hole though, which is why they need to improve significantly to catch high-flying Chelsea.