Heart grows fonder for absent enforcers

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The Independent Online

"Everyone keeps saying Arsenal are in transition, I keep saying the same thing about Manchester United but it doesn't get the same attention," Sir Alex Ferguson told MUTV, the club's television station, this week.

The yawning absence of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane from last night's bout underlined the fact that both teams are coming to terms with significant departures. But if they remain in transition too long, they risk becoming a Tottenham or, more seriously, an Aston Villa. Eventually something has to emerge from the chrysalis, something of substance.

In 1995, United went into transition and emerged to lift the Double. That team, the result of Ferguson putting his faith in youth, went on to dominate the domestic football landscape until Arsenal completed their own transition, a cultural one, under Arsène Wenger, their manager. Now both managers have to do the trick again, and do so under the crushing pressure induced by Chelsea's financial might.

The evidence of last night is that both have a way to go. In the past, these matches have usually sparkled as well as crackled, showcasing the best of English football to the world. This was a more prosaic affair and nowhere was it more apparent than in midfield. While Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes occasionally lifted the play to the heavens, the midfield engagement remained rooted to the turf.

Although they improved after the break, for long periods United could not keep the ball, their passing lacking the fizz and wit of the days when David Beckham and Paul Scholes were in their pomp. But Arsenal, although better at retaining possession, could not break United down. They had no one to assume the role that Vieira once filled, of striding into the heart of the opposition to bend events to his will. Gilberto was efficient but, as World Cup winners go, he lacks a little stardust.

For an 18-year-old, Cesc Fabregas was undeniably impressive but in this arena no allowance was made for youth and he could not seize the game either.

That should have been the aim, because United were there to be bossed. Without Keane's imperious command, they were lacking in direction. Rio Ferdinand has enough on his plate trying to regain his best form, a sublime pass to Ruud van Nistelrooy notwithstanding; Gary Neville, though a strong personality, is too peripheral at right-back, as is Ryan Giggs on the left flank. Wanted: a leader. Maybe Nemanja Vidic, the new centre-half, will be the man, but first he must hone his English.

For both teams, answers must be found. United have taken on an enormous burden of debt since the Glazers' takeover, Arsenal have a new ground to be filled.

"Sixty thousand, you're having a laugh," chorused the United fans in reference to that, echoing their manager's comments about Arsenal playing to empty seats.

Even if they fill Ashburton Grove, it will not be the loudest of audiences. The Highbury Library is not even a cockpit on nights like this. Before this match a fan stood outside with a loudhailer invoking the example of Liverpool's support in their Champions' League run as he implored the home fans to "sing for the team". Saying that, there was not a lot to shout about and, on this showing, there will not be for either side for a while yet.

However, such is the drive, desire and knowledge of both managers it is premature to declare the end of an era yet, in London or Manchester.