In the end, there was a dreadful familiarity about all of this for Arsenal. The Ryan Giggs “running down the wing”’ song.
Arsène Wenger flapping his hands in frustration in that coat which is built like a house. Defeat. But it would be wrong to say it conformed to the usual pattern of games which have yielded Wenger a single win in nine at a theatre of rather-less-than-dreams.
The visitors ended the game like a home side; tearing at Manchester United again and again, charged up by the energy which Jack Wilshere delivered when he finally arrived, and creating a contest. It eventually took us an eternity away from the dismal Arsenal defeatism of recent years: capitulating 8-2 and, in the case of Andre Santos, wanting to swap shirts at half-time. Yet for all that, we can be certain that the whole Manchester United enterprise would have had Sir Alex Ferguson shaking his head affirmatively because of the way the afternoon confirmed some of the fundamental beliefs he has had about Arsenal in recent years.
It is his conviction, for example, that Wenger is susceptible to signing players of only moderate talent. Such as Olivier Giroud – an example of the Arsenal manager’s capacity for “overestimating French football,” Ferguson once said. And there was certainly no better signifier for the difference between the teams than what the centre-forward in yellow offered and what the one in red provided on Sunday.
Matches like this are nearly always won or lost on single moments of class and while Robin van Persie won it with one – finding that incredible leverage to raise himself above Giroud and head home – the Frenchman could just not place a foot on any of the deliveries which arrived in the United area during a finale which had equaliser written across it.
Another of those moments on which these occasions turn was presented to him on 84 minutes. Chris Smalling settled that particular score with a tackle of outstanding quality on an afternoon of outstanding quality, when he really needed one to prove himself. When it came to finding something in reserve, the former Everton manager, David Moyes, turned to Ryan Giggs, for a 50th fixture against this opposition. Wenger had Nicklas Bendtner to look to. The sight of him flipped over on to his front, hair held up in a bunch, after a strained effort to connect with Bacary Sagna’s late, low cross into the area had come to nothing in the closing stages, fairly much confirmed the value of that particular substitution.
It was a measure of the impressive start that Arsenal have had to the season that Wenger did not feel any reason to hide behind the obvious excuse available to him, in defeat. His side went into the game suffering collateral damage from a sickness bug. And though Tottenham supporters will say “tell us about it” – still remembering the most famous lasagne in their club’s history which allowed Arsenal, rather than them, to qualify for the Champions League on the last day of the 2005-06 season –there was no Per Mertesacker, or Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta was suffering while playing and Serge Gnabry, on the bench, was equally unwell.
“I don’t even want to speak about the virus. They declared themselves fit,” reflected Wenger, who does not usually pass up such opportunities. Revealingly, he also spoke about a “nervousness” in his team and a feeling that his players had struggled to deal with the force of history at Old Trafford and all those defeats. This was a significant statement: an admission that although Arsenal, who had not played any of last season’s top four before yesterday, do lead the table, they do not sense the same inalienable right to be there that United do. It is the “winning mentality” that all the managers come back to, time and time again.
The failing was most evident of all in the case of Mesut Özil, the player least capable of knowing the gulf between Arsenal and United in recent years and the one who has allowed Wenger to reacquire a transfer market reputation. Özil went absent without leave in the chill Manchester night; invisible to most of his team-mates and struggling to reach the same cognitive level as them, as passes went astray. A single moment early on 60 minutes told the story. Wayne Rooney flipped a ball past Özil and, with the German unable to shift his balance and move, ran around him to collect it in space, to the raucous delight of United’s supporters. It was a moment of sweet justification for Moyes, who turned down the offer to buy Özil this summer because – not unreasonably – he felt that Rooney and Robin van Persie obviated the need.
The occasion was also beyond Santi Cazorla, as vapid as Özil, though Aaron Ramsey did not fall into the category of the “nervous.” The radar of his own passing did not match up to that we have seen as he has established himself as the Premier League’s outstanding midfielder of the past few months and it was he who failed the zonal marking test by allowing Van Persie his comfortable header. But Ramsey was enough of a presence – driving at United in a second half which grew more absorbing as afternoon drew into evening – to confirm Ferguson and Moyes’ regrets that they did not sign him.
The post-match press conferences concluded with Moyes declaring that he was not happy with being five points off the top. “No. I would want to be top. Why would you want to be five points off?” he reflected, providing in a few short observations a measure of the self-belief of which we still look for proof in Arsenal.