Robin van Persie was destined to inflict misery on his former club upon their visit to Old Trafford, but few could have ever envisioned him doing so after only two minutes. His instinctive strike, handed to him on a platter by the usually reliable Thomas Vermaelen, evoked a frustrated cry from Arsenal fans that would be regularly repeated throughout the match.
The eagerly anticipated encounter embodied the ‘men versus boys’ cliché as Manchester United controlled the game from start to finish. The 2-1 scoreline may have been a far cry from last season’s 8-2 hammering but the performance displayed by each side were worlds apart. The victory saw the Red Devil’s return to the top of the table but it also highlighted how Arsenal are as far away from serious title contenders, as they’ve ever been.
Sir Alex Ferguson hailed the fixture as, “a strange game” and one that was “nothing like Manchester United and Arsenal games of the past.” What was once a clash of two English heavyweights now resembles a bloodbath, as the naivety of Wenger’s starlets is pummelled into submission. It’s not so much a contest anymore as an inevitable conclusion, perfectly showcased by Ferguson’s visible frustration that the margin of victory wasn’t considerably greater.
“You look at the score and it looks like a close game. It wasn’t a close game.” (Guardian)
When I cast my eye over the Arsenal squad I struggle to see the leadership that was once evident from the presence of Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira. The dismal form of Thomas Vermaelen coupled with the ongoing absence of Abou Diaby and Wojciech Szczesny exposes a lack of steel and grit in an otherwise gifted squad.
The returning Jack Wilshere displayed all the right levels of passion, but he allowed his emotions to run riot with two rash tackles that meant he deservedly saw red. The tippy-tappy nature of Arsenal’s play is their one and only tactic, commendable in the eyes of some but how many fans long to sing the immortal phrase, ‘one nil to the Arsenal’?
Last season the heart of the team was ripped away thanks to the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Whoever you may hold responsible for such a giant setback, fault must lie with Wenger for his ill-advised last-minute shopping spree. Aside from the impressive displays of Mikel Arteta, the new arrivals continue to be a source of ridicule.
Per Mertesacker may have undergone a vast transformation since last season but he’s still as mobile as a clown wearing stilts and gets frequently exposed in one-on-one situations. Chu Young Park and Joel Campbell are both light-years away from the first-team while Andre Santos claimed van Persie’s shirt as reward for the worst Brazilian to play at Old Trafford since Kleberson.
Take a minute to compare the two side’s contrasting strike forces. Van Persie and Wayne Rooney have already settled on the same wavelength, constantly feeding off one another’s deliveries as they interchange positions. Giroud and Podolski on the other hand resemble two removal men trying to move a piano up a flight of stairs. It’s a constant struggle watching them try to adapt to English football and just when it seems like they’ve made a breakthrough, they run into another cul-de-sac.
The worst aspect about the Dutchman’s new-found partnership is that he could have shared a similar relationship with Theo Walcott, had Wenger only gifted the pair an opportunity to play together up front.
Speaking of Walcott, it’s beginning to verge on the ridiculous that Arsenal’s most in-form player is continually left to stew on the bench. The reasons are clear and even understandable but when Wayne Rooney kicked up a similar fuss, United moved quickly to meet his demands, knowing full well that they would be significantly weakened by his departure.
Arsenal simply cannot afford to lose another high-profile player, especially when Walcott has repeatedly outlined his credentials for his desired role as a striker. However, Wenger or rather the board, are still adamant that the club will not adjust their financial structure to resonate with the rest of the big clubs around the world.
Herein lies the problem, how long can the club justify abstaining from success – fourth place doesn’t count – while they continue to rack up a healthy annual profit. The reported £35m transfer budget needs to be spent in full, on players with the same reputation as Santi Cazrola that will inspire confidence back into a side Wenger himself admits has “lost belief”.
As United gear up for another title charge, Arsenal find themselves in the worryingly familiar battle two or three rungs further down the ladder. The cries of ‘we want our Arsenal back’ carry a harrowing sense of reality. This is a team that was once unbeatable, but now looks beaten before the season has really got going.
Join me on Twitter @theunusedsub where I have been admiring Alex Witsel’s delightful overhead kick during a game of head tennis.