Manchester United 4 Arsenal 0: Rooney's lone star state perks up Capello

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Wazza and Fabio: an unusual collision of football cultures. Yet on Saturday evening the new England manager applauded like a proud parent at the school nativity play as Wayne Rooney left the pitch after a performance of limitless promise. In fact, Capello reacted like a man who believed his job had just become a little easier.

It would be easy to get carried away with the manner in which Rooney contributed to the destruction of Arsenal – and, given his normal restraint, Capello certainly did – but that would be to miss the point about England's shining star. The value of Rooney on his day is not in question; the problem has been that those days have coincided only too rarely with England's most crucial moments. Was Saturday a key to unlocking England's future or just one of those matches when an ungovernable talent flickered purely of its own accord?

Presumably what Capello saw in Rooney were the possibilities that dazzled the Italian's predecessors Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren, who both used the striker in very different ways. Against Arsenal, Rooney played alone up front and ransacked William Gallas and Kolo Touré's confidence – in stark contrast to his performance in the same position in Capello's first England match against Switzerland. Same position, two very different performances but was Saturday enough to convince Capello that Rooney can still go it alone in attack?

From Arsène Wenger came this opinion on deploying Rooney as a lone striker. "I wouldn't say in the longer term that this is his best position because he's a player who likes to get the ball, but in a one-off game he can do it," he said. "I don't think in the long term he will be a lone striker. Against us I thought Rooney was fantastic. He was sharp, mobile, quick, aggressive, even good in the air. He did everything."

A one-off performance? There have been a few of those for England, such as Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarter-finals when that particular one-off performance ended with a frustrated, isolated Rooney lashing out and being dismissed. For McClaren the memory was indelible.

Eriksson's successor had Rooney available for only seven of the 18 games for which he was in charge and never once played the striker on his own in attack. Under McClaren, Rooney partnered Michael Owen, Peter Crouch and Andy Johnson – and once played in a three-man forward line against the Netherlands in November 2006 – but never led on his own.

There was not much for Capello to get excited about in Rooney's performance against Switzerland, although Saturday's reaction suggests he is reconsidering. Rooney himself said that the difference was "the support from the midfield and wings" which, even in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, reduced his isolation. "I've said a few times when I've played at the front on my own that sometimes the running from midfield hasn't quite been there," Rooney said. "But it was brilliant, everyone was running all over the pitch, and Arsenal couldn't cope."

The FA Cup, Capello can reflect, has given him two of Rooney's best performances this season when he considers the 20-minute cameo that seized the initiative against Aston Villa in the third round. On that occasion, however, Manchester United's victory was never quite such a foregone conclusion as it appeared to be on Saturday. Subdued, lacklustre, uninvolved: Arsenal's attitude towards the FA Cup was betrayed in everything they did. It was not a day for caring too much and from early on United smelt blood.

Sir Alex Ferguson said that Gallas should have been sent off for kicking out at Nani as tempers frayed near the end. "The referee [Alan Wiley] must have a look at that again," Ferguson said. "He kicked Nani from behind and the referee called both over because they squared up to each other. He [Gallas] should have been red-carded."

By then Emmanuel Eboué had already been dismissed for catching Patrice Evra thigh-high when the two of them challenged in the air. It was not the most cynical act Eboué has ever conjured on the football field – his eyes were fixed on the ball as his studs made contact – and not quite as clear-cut as Gallas's loss of control later. More surprising was Ferguson's agreement with Wenger that Nani's cheeky sequence of headers and general showboating were an affront to the competition.

The FA Cup had already been badly compromised by the shallowness of Arsenal's performance by the time Nani was teasing them by juggling the ball: such acts are the prerogative of any team who win as comfortably as United. "I think he shouldn't be doing that," Ferguson said. "In some ways it shows a great deal of courage to do what he did, but you don't need to do it and I've had a word with him about it."

Nani had one of his most influential games for United, crossing for the second goal headed in by Darren Fletcher off Gallas's head. Rooney had nodded in the first and Nani tucked away the third after Michael Carrick's through-ball. No doubts that the fourth was Fletcher's, as he headed home Nani's cross at the far post on 74 minutes. At 24, Fletcher deserves better than the seven starts he has had all season but even after this performance is still difficult to see how he will get it at Old Trafford.

His post-match demeanour suggested that it had been no mental torture for Wenger to accept the fate of his team's FA Cup campaign as he considers Wednesday's Champions League game against Milan. Wenger's only complaint was the pitch – "a disgrace" – which he suggested may be to United's detriment. "Even for them it is a handicap, because their team plays at a good technical level, but the quality of the pitch negates those differences with other sides."

Wenger was clear that he was not offering the state of the pitch as an excuse; in fact, he simply did not have an excuse. Even in defeat he was quite happy to join an amicable debate about the best position to play Rooney. On Saturday it hardly seemed to matter where Rooney played but Capello will know that, as far as England are concerned, it is one of his biggest decisions.

Goals: Rooney (16) 1-0; Fletcher (20) 2-0; Nani (38) 3-0; Fletcher (74) 4-0.

Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Park, Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson (Scholes, 71), Nani; Rooney (Saha, 71). Substitutes not used: O'Shea, Kuszczak (gk), Tevez.

Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Lehmann; J Hoyte, Touré, Gallas, Traoré; Gilberto; Eboué, Fabregas (Flamini, 70), Hleb (Adebayor, 70), Eduardo (Senderos, 70); Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Clichy.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Booked: Manchester United Ferdinand, Rooney, Fletcher; Arsenal Eduardo, Gilberto, Adebayor.

Sent off: Arsenal Eboué (49).

Man of the match: Rooney.

Attendance: 75,550.

Six of the best Manchester United's biggest wins over Arsenal

All games in First Division or Premier League unless stated

* 26 December 1910

Manchester United 5 Arsenal 0

United scorers: Picken 2, West 2, Meredith

* 26 April 1952

Man Utd 6 Arsenal 1

Rowley 3, Pearson 2, Byrne

* 9 February 1957

Man Utd 6 Arsenal 2

Berry 2, Whelan 2, Edwards, Taylor

* 17 March 1984

Man Utd 4 Arsenal 0

Muhren 2, Robson, Stapleton

* 28 November 1990

(League Cup, fourth round)

Arsenal 2 Man Utd 6

Sharpe 3, Blackmore, Hughes, Wallace

* 25 February 2001

Man Utd 6 Arsenal 1

Yorke 3, Keane, Sheringham, Solskjaer