With an hour gone, and United gradually taking control, Denis Irwin drove into the Arsenal penalty area. There to make the tackle, and come away with the ball, was Dennis Bergkamp, pounds 7.5m of thoroughbred striker, tracking back like a workhorse.
At other times, the crucial intervention came from Glenn Helder, a winger whose first appearances at Highbury suggested he thought his contract had a clause that precluded defending. Graham may be gone from Highbury, but his work ethic is alive and well.
However, this should not be taken to mean that Arsenal are all drudge and no dazzle. The difference between Graham's Arsenal and Bruce Rioch's is in what they do when they have the ball. The first impulse is no longer to look for Ian Wright and hoof it into space ahead of him, it is to find a red shirt within 20 yards and pass to its owner's feet. This is radical stuff at Highbury, and the supporters love it. In the first half there were several sweeping one-touch moves whose fluency had United chasing shadows.
At the hub of many of these was Bergkamp, who often formed the link between Wright, Paul Merson and Helder. Arsenal, according to Graham this week, paid over the odds for Bergkamp. Maybe, but you would not have found many subscribing to that view at Highbury on Saturday. Quite a few were happily paying over the odds for him themselves - large posters of the Dutchman were selling well at pounds 2 outside.
The comparison between Bergkamp and the other pounds 7m striker, Andy Cole, was instructive. While Cole is much more of an all-round player than he was at Newcastle, his touch is not as precise as Bergkamp's and his awareness is less acute. While the Dutchman was spraying perfectly weighted crossfield passes around Highbury, too many of Cole's were hit too heavily, inaccurately, or obviously. He also failed where it counts, in front of goal, missing one particularly good opportunity just before the hour after slick passes by Eric Cantona and Roy Keane had put him clear.
But Bergkamp should really be compared with Cantona, not Cole. The Frenchman had a quiet game, but his eye for a pass stood out, especially one 38th- minute ball to Cole that wrong-footed both the Arsenal defence and 34,000 spectators, most of whom were expecting him to spread the ball wide. It was, however, fractionally underhit and Tony Adams was able to block as Cole delayed his shot.
Cantona also missed a late chance to equalise, beautifully put through by Cole he was surprisingly let down by his touch and the commanding David Seaman was able to save.
That left Bergkamp as the only scorer. His seventh Arsenal goal came after he dispossessed the hesitant Irwin before beating Schmeichel with an immaculate finish 15 minutes into the game. Away from the restrictions of the lone role he was given at Internazionale, he looks much happier. His partnership with Wright still has room for improvement, but judging by the success it is already having, that will be a source of pleasure, not frustration, for Rioch.
That assessment applies to the team as a whole. With only David Platt - no great passer himself - and Bergkamp added to the mix, Arsenal are taking time to adopt the new habits, but clearly relish the attempt.
Towards the end, as United penned them in, they reverted to type, seeking to release Wright into space whenever they got the ball back. Rioch's solution was to take off Wright - who was far from happy about it - and bring on John Hartson. Now the ball had to be played into feet, securing a few more precious seconds of possession.
Last season this match, played after another week of European failure (United's in Gothenburg), was an awful, bad-tempered goalless draw. As such, it was very much in the tradition of recent United-Arsenal encounters. On Saturday, it was initially absorbing and ultimately thrilling, always easy on the eye and rarely niggling.
The change is partly due to personnel, last year's main headbangers - Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and John Jensen - were not among the assembly and Keane, in his last game before his latest suspension, was on his best behaviour. But it was also a question of attitude. Both managers desire positive football - it is noticeable that all United's "difficult" players in recent seasons have been imported - their kids compete without the excesses.
That there was only one goal was due to the excellence of the goalkeepers - Peter Schmeichel made a particularly fine save from a diving header by Wright - and some magnificent second-half defending by Arsenal. "They had all the luck," said a disappointed Alex Ferguson. A debatable point, but even if it was true, Arsenal had earned it.
Goal: Bergkamp (15) 1-0.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Merson, Platt, Keown, Helder; Bergkamp; Wright (Hartson, 79). Substitutes not used: Jensen, Bartram (gk).
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin (McClair, 80); Butt (Beckham, 63), Keane; Scholes (Sharpe, 63), Cantona, Giggs; Cole.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).Reuse content