James Lawton: Humiliation hurts but reality cuts deeper into Wenger's belief

It wasn't so much a defeat, lopsided and embarrassingly wretched, but an exposure, a horrible episode of humiliation

In the hard-nosed world of American gridiron, they call what Manchester United did to Arsenal here yesterday afternoon running up the score. It is not a term of admiration for outstanding, even brilliant performance. Indeed, the opposite is true. It is what they say of examples of mean-spirited exploitation of plainly out-gunned opponents. Running up the score is the equivalent of bar-room boasting. Unfortunately, yesterday, United were not given a whole lot of alternatives.

Wayne Rooney thundered in his free-kicks. Ashley Young ran with the continued freedom of someone who has arrived in a situation which plainly suits perfectly his belief that he is at the point of his career where he can achieve just about anything he wants – though the goals that came to him quite exquisitely yesterday are not often going to come quite so easily.

United went to the top of the league with eight goals that gave them, for the moment at least, a small edge over the equally destructive Manchester City. But the real significance of the achievement they shared with their neighbours was to produce the most sweeping evidence that they have come to a new season in impressive fighting order. They looked abundantly equipped for the job. Arsenal looked precisely the opposite. They were the shell of a football team, a remnant of old glory.

And then United started to score goals as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Rooney lined up the Arsenal goal as if he was in charge of an artillery unit. Young's running was filled with optimism. Before he pulled a hamstring, Danny Welbeck was promising some more of the rampage that has carried him into the regard of England coach Fabio Capello. Even Nani hinted that he was about to settle down to some seriously controlled aggression.

It was at this point that you wondered if Arsène Wenger needed to draw from his fragile reserves on the bench – or maybe send up a flare signalling his distress.

Arsenal may have been afflicted by freakish assaults on first-team strength – quite apart from the permanent loss of their two best players – but there is a reality here that dwarfs more or less any circumstances, however unfortunate.

In case we are tempted to forget, we are not talking about any old bodged-up, dysfunctional football club falling on hard times or paying a fleeting visit to the big time. We are discussing The Arsenal – Arsène Wenger's Arsenal.

Maybe matters will improve when Gervinho and Emmanuel Frimpong and Alex Song get back from suspension and Jack Wilshere is fit again to supply a hint of the maturity and the hope that he began to represent so strikingly last season but, in the meantime, Arsenal are obliged to absorb the meaning of what happened to them here yesterday afternoon.

It wasn't so much a defeat, lopsided and embarrassingly wretched, but an exposure, a horrible episode of humiliation which just happened to coincide with the fact that, after three games of the new Premier League season, they find themselves rooted in the bottom four.

This may prove soon enough to be an artificially low position, certainly if some of the composure that brought a Champions League qualifying-round victory at Udinese can be found amid the rubble of this at times savagely but, in all honesty, more often nonchalantly imposed slaughter, yet really, how many places down the rung are we considering? Ten maybe, a dozen perhaps?

The question is academic – unlike the one that all of football is now bound to ask. This one is about whether the place so long occupied, and with such panache and self-confidence, by the teams created by Wenger can ever be truly reclaimed.

Wenger walked away from the scene of his team's destruction with his head held high and maybe it is true that few football men are entitled to adopt such a posture. However, there was an impossible question to answer as he retreated from view.

How deeply did the wounds of this day cut into his belief that he will sooner than later have Arsenal moving smoothly back into their old rhythm, their old assumption that when the big football issues are settled they will inevitably have something of a say?

That day could hardly seem more remote as United took their goals, their easy rewards for playing merely well against opponents who had come here stripped of fight and of nous and apparently possessing few certainties about the future – and maybe not just the one stretching across a late summer's afternoon.

Late summer, did we say? If you cared for the meaning of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, if you wondered if they would ever again display the old swagger and joy, the cold went a lot deeper than that.

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