James Lawton: United pay the price of believing own hype

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson was teetering on the edge of generosity before the game when he described an apparently broken Arsenal as a team "in transition". But no doubt he was revising that assessment long before the end of the humiliating defeat for a Manchester United, who were supposed to be once again going to places of serious ambition.

A dispassionate gut reaction, which is not always on the tip of Fergie's emotional reflex system, had to be that in fact it was Arsène Wenger's young team who might just be on the point of a significant arrival.

Arsenal's football rippled with both intelligence and purpose and by comparison United were a mess of a team - and a seriously self-indulgent one. Not for the first time this year Cristiano Ronaldo was the prime example of a young player of talent who seems incapable of grasping the essential quality of all great players, young and old. It is discipline, a capacity to exploit your own strength while always relating to the efforts of your team-mates.

Ronaldo made a mockery of this principle, as he did in the World Cup this summer when the splendour of his talent so often dribbled away for a lack of control, that degree of judgement and respect which separates the fancy touch from the real contribution.

Ronaldo had huge amounts of the ball but rarely did he put it to proper use. Indeed, there was poetic justice in the moment Arsenal struck for victory four minutes from the end - a strike of fine judgement by the young Emmanuel Adebayor. It had flowed from the most costly aberration of Ronaldo's feckless afternoon. He gave up the ball to Cesc Fabregas - who, as he had been doing most of the afternoon, promptly cut through half the United team and delivered a finely weighted little pass to the feet of his team-mate.

This was a killer punch which had become quite inevitable. By the end of the first half the division of class, and even something as basic as the execution of a simple pass, had become not much short of embarrassing. Had Gilberto Silva converted the early penalty, after the stand-in goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak had brought down the hulking but at times deceptively adroit Adebayor, Arsenal's self-confidence might quite possibly have surged on to another level.

This prospect was averted when Gilberto fired almost directly at Kuszczak , but no doubt this failed to persuade Ferguson to take his hand off the hair-dryer button.

In every area of the game Arsenal, despite the absence of Thierry Henry, were superior to the team who some believed were in the process of re-exerting their grip on English football.

It is, and you have to suspect it must remain so for some time, a fallacy. The hard truth on this evidence is that United had grown strong against some indifferent opposition, and when an Arsenal languishing near the bottom of the Premiership began to ask some even half-serious questions, United were more or less permanently befuddled.

Even Paul Scholes, such a force of invention in the midweek defeat of Celtic, was beaten down by the torpor of a team performance in which Wayne Rooney looked a long way indeed from any chance of being recognised as one of the world's best young players. Scholes came off in the company of Rooney, who looked to be on the verge of an adolescent spat. The double substitution - John O'Shea remained on the field despite being constantly by-passed in all that had gone on before - was surprising because while Scholes didn't quite touch the authority he displayed when returning for the Champions' League game, he was still much the most threatening presence in a United midfield at times utterly outplayed by Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky.

Rooney's departure was odd despite his inconsequential performance. While he was on the field at least there was a chance of United unearthing enough bite and coherence to challenge Arsenal's increasingly strong assumption that they were bound to win. It was a belief based on the evidence of their eyes and the easy progress made against a United who maybe in too many cases had begun to believe the publicity building around their all-conquering start to the season.

Here, reality kicked in with the force of mule. Arsenal played with touch and life and, crucially, in the fashion of a real team. United never did this. They were a group of individuals without a binding force. Ronaldo might have triggered something if his powerful shot had found the net rather than smashing into the face of the ever eccentric Jens Lehmann. But there would have been the distinct sense of a freakish success fashioned against all the laws of probability. United, frankly, never suggested they were going anywhere this day. In fact, they scarcely looked like a team.