Arsenal vs Manchester United: If this result does not stiffen resolve, Arsenal are surely beyond hope

Arsène Wenger hopes to capitalise on Arsenal’s favourable fixtures over the coming months

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The Independent Online

In his dark moments when the roof is caving in, when Piers Morgan is out on the Twitter hustings campaigning for his removal, when Ian Poulter is pinging barbs his way from Orlando, it is days like this that sustain Arsène Wenger.

At the heart of his vision is an ideal, a footballing aesthetic that preaches quick, incisive thrusts via sensitive feet in the service of players of intelligence and courage. Manchester United did not know what hit them in an opening 20 minutes when Arsenal conjured the purest expression of the Wenger philosophy. 

Typically this followed days of hand wringing after the Champions League defeat at home to Olympiakos, which occasioned the latest round of Wenger hounding. That defeat masked a run of three wins in four in the Premier League that yesterday became four in five, with the bonus of supplanting United in second place on goal difference.

In this season of epic disintegration at Chelsea, Arsenal’s defeat at Stamford Bridge would appear the only result in the league for which Wenger might reproach himself. Any team can lose on the opening day, and subsequent victories on the road by West Ham substantiated their ambush at the Emirates. The challenge, as ever, for Wenger, is to maintain a standard that in abstract has always met the highest standard. 

Central to this bruising evisceration of United was the continuing brilliance of Alexis Sanchez, who blew United away with two back-heals and a blockbuster. His first reverse flick flew directly into the back of the net for the opening goal, the second into the path of Theo Walcott, who put the ball on a sixpence for Mesut Özil to slot past David De Gea. 

Sanchez had the fates with him for the third as the ball bobbled through two tackles, but in the nanosecond that space did open, his foot was through the boot before De Gea could move. Two De Geas would not have stopped the shot unleashed. 

Arsenal did not put away a Norwich or Stoke, they smashed a title rival

 

That’s six goals in a week for Sanchez, who led the flaying of Leicester with a hat-trick and scored another in the maddening defeat to Olympiakos. Arsenal might have gone to the break four to the good had Aaron Ramsey not butchered another opening.

The second half did not deliver the same intensity from Arsenal, a team inevitably reacting to the circumstances created in the first period. The crushing advantage changed the dynamic. The game fell into a pattern familiar to United watchers, lots of possession for the visitors but too little penetration.

Wenger is summarily disregarded as an aesthete who cares little for the defensive rhythms of the game. This is wide of the mark. For him it is about a balance of responsibilities. The emphasis is always  to win the game but in that framework there is a commitment to defend within a system that does not load responsibility on defenders alone.

A clean sheet against a team that began the weekend top of the league and following Tuesday’s European setback was as pleasing to Wenger as the opening flourish. There was at the close a sense of euphoria ringing around the Emirates that will only raise the ante when Arsenal resume against Watford after the international break. The fixture list, the home match against Spurs next month apart, is not forbidding until the visit of Manchester City in Christmas week.

Yes it is dangerous to bank the points before a ball has been kicked, but in this period of Champions League immersion, Arsenal would not have chosen an alternative set of Premier League dates had they had control of the computer themselves. 

Arsenal  did not put away a Stoke or a Norwich here, no disrespect to the endeavours of the league’s middling institutions. They smashed a title rival. If this does not stiffen resolve in the weeks ahead, they are indeed beyond hope.

There are some who will argue that Arsenal have not taken a step here, rather they have taken advantage of a team of inflated reputation. Jamie Carragher raised the ghost of old complaints when he declared emphatically that Arsenal cannot win the Champions League with this team. What he was saying is that Arsenal cannot be trusted, that on afternoons like this they flatter to deceive. They will be out in the first knockout stage and fade in the league. Same old Arsenal.

It is up to Arsenal to prove them wrong, and they can only do that by winning. Wenger does not need Carragher to tell him that. “It’s focus. Subconsciously perhaps we have to make a step up. We have played some great games. You always need to win the big games. It’s vital for confidence but you have to carry that on into the next game,” he said.

“We were good, we started strong to press to win the ball and to be quick in transition.  It worked. We missed our game in the week. We are on a good run in the Premier League but we were not  disciplined on Tuesday night. We responded today.” 

The table reflects well enough the balance of power. It is for Arsenal to seize the moment, which on the evidence thus far will mean bashing City as well as United.  

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