Arsene Wenger can say what he likes for as long as he cares, but he cannot do anything to an image which here last night shamed a football club that used to be a monument to the best values of the English game.
The picture had the awful lingering compulsion of one of those mob scenes on a back street, caught by newsreel, which give the most dismal report of the human condition.
It makes it so much worse, however, that the hate-filled crowd of Arsenal players who pushed and screamed at Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy at the end of the game were expressing rage engendered by something as ultimately trivial as a football match.
Why, we have to wonder, did Martin Keown, a veteran of the game, Ray Parlour, and Lauren hassle Van Nistelrooy so viciously after he had missed a penalty kick? Why did Ashley Cole, an established - well, sort of established - England international, charge at the recent arrival from Portugal, the 18-year-old star Cristiano Ronaldo? Why did the entire Arsenal team behave so vehemently at the final whistle? It is, I think we have to say, because beneath the surface of their often beautiful football, Arsenal remain an undisciplined riot waiting to happen.
Their record of 52 red cards under Wenger has long been a grim phenomenon and paradox. But there is something developing at Highbury which goes beyond merely a cavalier attitude to the rules of the game. It is paranoia that is becoming institutionalised.
Wenger was as predictable as ever when he announced that he was disappointed by the sending-off of his captain, Patrick Vieira. He said that Van Nistelrooy had contributed to the problem, but any review of the film must inevitably exonerate the Manchester United man.
It is true there was no contact when Vieira lashed out with his foot after the collision which earned the United man a yellow card. But Van Nistelrooy didn't dive. He simply stepped back from what was an extremely aggressive act.
Certainly we were not in the country of Robert Pires, who last week became notorious for his blatant dive to win a penalty against Portsmouth.
Wenger was also sceptical about a penalty awarded to United when Keown pulled at Diego Forlan as they fought for a ball. It was not the most obvious award but again film evidence confirmed that Keown had handled the United substitute, and of course the laws of football are quite specific on this matter.
What Wenger should really have been concentrating upon - after winning a point from an extremely unambitious performance - was that anarchy at the finish told a terrible story of what happens when a club develops a siege mentality. Van Nistelrooy became, it seems, a target for Arsenal's sense of persecution. The Dutchman does have a reputation for making the most of physical contact and possibly this was the trigger for the rage that came flooding into the faces of the Arsenal player. It was a rage expressed in a taunting way that was quite sickening to see.
Interestingly, the United chief, Sir Alex Ferguson, said that he was disappointed with the reaction of his Arsenal rival. He had only this weekend made the case for managers acknowledging the cheating tendencies of their players. In his own case, there is no doubt that over the last few years he has worked assiduously against the lack of discipline which not so long ago was a flaw as evident in his team as it is now so obviously so in Arsenal's.
What we had to see last evening was the effects of a failure to remind players of their obligations to themselves, their club and the game in general.
It was, in fact, a former Arsenal player - and now a commentator - Alan Smith, who made the most piercing after-match analysis in a stint as a television analyst. He said that his old club had got serious problems on their agenda. You couldn't excuse the number of offences they regularly commit against the discipline of the game. It just wasn't all bad luck, said Smith. Given his situation, it was a bold and admirable thing to say.
Whether such honesty will ever emerge from within the present regime at Highbury has to be extremely doubtful. Paranoia builds on itself and soon enough slips out of control. That was the appalling possibility that came to Old Trafford last night.
Surely the FA will have to take action. They cannot look at the images presented by the Arsenal players and not see that here was a terrible scar on the national game. These were highly paid and respected professionals teetering towards a riot. That it was avoided had much to do with the self-control of several United players - notably the captain, Roy Keane, who in the past has, as we all know, ridden so close to the wind he has been in danger of being blown away. However, Ferguson told him that he had reached almost the point of no return. It is a statement that Wenger desperately needs to make to his own players. Whether or not he will is a huge question about the future of a club he has so often pointed to the stars.
- More about:
- Alan Smithers
- Manchester United
- Patrick Vieira
- Premier League
- Robert Pires
- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Sir Alex Ferguson