Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a vow of silence when it comes to media relations, irked by suggestions that his reign is coming to a sticky end. If he hoped his team would do the talking for him, he was hugely disappointed at Highbury yesterday. Most of them barely raised a whisper, while the conclusion to Fabien Barthez's performance was simply unspeakable.
With 10 minutes remaining the World Cup winner had reason to feel pleased with himself. Beginning in the opening minute, he had made several good saves to keep United on level terms against an impressive Arsenal side. Then he made two howlers. First, under little pressure, he sent a clearance straight to the unmarked Thierry Henry at the edge of the area. Henry quickly overcame his surprise to roll the ball into the unguarded net. Four minutes later, coming out to gather a through ball from Patrick Vieira, he unaccountably let it through his hands, enabling Henry to run on and score again. As Highbury sang "Give it to Barthez" and "Barthez is a Gooner" Ferguson was left to ponder in silence his loyalty to the error-prone goalkeeper.
Already this season Barthez has cost his team three Champions' League points against Deportivo La Coruña, let in a soft goal against Newcastle and been caught in possession at Blackburn. With Roy Carroll, an able deputy, on the sidelines Ferguson must be wondering whether Barthez needs a break.
While the manner of the goals was, Arsène Wenger admitted, "lucky" Arsenal's first victory in four home Premiership matches was deserved. Unfortunate to be behind they eventually outplayed United in all departments. Vieira was magnificent but he was not alone with Henry, Matthew Upson, Ray Parlour and Dennis Bergkamp a strong supporting cast. In all Arsenal had 17 shots to United's three and nine corners to two. Statistics do not always tell the whole story but these were an accurate reflection of yesterday's balance of play.
"I am very pleased," Wenger said, "not just because of the quality of our game but also the character we showed. We are a young team but we showed togetherness after going 1-0 down from their first shot at goal. The team is growing but it needed this win. So did the fans to believe in us. I felt they had turned cold at home. Today they were marvellous."
The victory moves Arsenal, seventh at kick-off, up to third, three points behind leaders Liverpool. United drop to sixth, two points behind. They are still very much in the frame but they have now lost four matches in 13 Premiership games. Moreover, they are still searching for the right showcase for their abilities.
The champions began with their now familiar 4-1-4-1 formation, Roy Keane shielding the back four, Ruud van Nistelrooy a lone figure in attack. Defensively it worked well enough with Keane instrumental in the first-half suffocation of Arsenal's multi-pronged attack. Offensively it offered little. That David Beckham's headed flick-ons were one of their better outlets says everything.
They were, the first to score. Arsenal had begun brightly with both Nwankwo Kanu and Parlour beating Laurent Blanc for pace inside the first dozen minutes. Blanc was cautioned but Henry wasted the free-kicks. But then, in what proved to be their best move in the match, Quinton Fortune, Paul Scholes and Van Nistelrooy combined to release Mickaël Silvestre on the left. He exposed the defensive pretensions of Lauren, then pulled the ball back for Scholes to score.
It was hard on Stuart Taylor, the rookie goalkeeper thrown into the fray in the injury-enforced absence of David Seaman and Richard Wright. He had yet to have a meaningful touch of the ball and must have wondered what was next. The answer proved to be an afternoon's spectating. At least until the final moments when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, pursuing a lost cause, went in late and left him with a bruising souvenir of his Premiership debut.
In front of him Vieira was walking all over Juan Sebastian Veron and driving Arsenal forward. Barthez had to deny Robert Pires, who advanced after a loose pass from Scholes, Parlour and, with the same left boot which later betrayed him, Henry.
That save enabled United to go in ahead but, in the dressing-room, Arsenal resolved to up the tempo. "We decided to go for it," Wenger said, "even if it meant we lost four or five nil."
They were helped by yet another individual error as, three minutes after the break, Gary Neville gave the ball away to Pires. He drove across the park before releasing Fredrik Ljungberg, who steered his shot inside the far post.
It was the lift Arsenal needed. They swamped United with a passion and purpose which, if repeated on foreign fields, would surely revive their Champions' League campaign.
United, once again, reverted to 4-4-2, Dwight Yorke supporting Van Nistelrooy, but it made no difference. Keane was left fighting a lone stand in midfield grateful that, as so often this season, Arsenal's sublime approach play was not being matched by their finishing. In particular both Kanu, set up by Henry, and Henry, released by Bergkamp's exquisite lob, should have tested Barthez more severely.
As the pressure mounted Barthez nearly came to blows with Upson after a corner. At the time it seemed that Wes Brown's quick intervention had rescued Barthez from disgracing himself. Instead the hapless keeper merely found another way to reduce his manager to exasperation.
Goals: Scholes (14) 0-1; Ljungberg (48) 1-1; Henry (80) 2-1; Henry (84) 3-1.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Taylor 5; Lauren 5, Campbell 5, Upson 7, Cole 6; Ljungberg 6, Parlour 7, Vieira 8, Pires 5 (Grimandi, 82); Henry 8, Kanu 6 (Bergkamp 7, 73). Substitutes not used: Wiltord, Van Bronckhorst, Stack (gk).
Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Barthez 3; G Neville 4, Brown 7, Blanc 4, Silvestre 5 (P Neville 5, 56); Keane 7; Beckham 4, Scholes 6, Veron 3 (Yorke 3, 57), Fortune 5; Van Nistelrooy 5 (Solskjaer, 77). Substitutes not used: Butt, Carroll (gk).
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough) 6.
Bookings: Arsenal: Upson, Ljungberg. Manchester United: Barthez, Blanc, Beckham.
Man of the match: Vieira.
Attendance: 38,174.Reuse content