It is time to strip away the nostalgia that surrounds this fixture.
What was once the nearest the Premier League came to Spain’s gran clasico is now almost unrecognisable. Last season Manchester United scored eight against Arsenal and, although it was only two now, the margin of dominance was just as great.
In the match programme there was a palpable hankering for the days when Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira faced down each other in the tunnel at Highbury. When Tony Adams waited outside the dressing rooms at Villa Park to congratulate Ryan Giggs after the titanic FA Cup semi-final in 1999. A longing for the days when this fixture settled championships.
Towards the end of the most one-sided game Old Trafford has staged this season – even Wigan put up fiercer resistance in a 4-0 defeat – their supporters began singing: “We want our Arsenal back”. They are not the only ones.
In victory Sir Alex Ferguson sounded strangely disappointed and even irritated. In the past it would have been the mere fact that United had won against Arsenal that would have mattered to their manager. It was significant that here he fretted about the margin of victory.
When reminded about Wayne Rooney’s missed penalty, the fourth of the season United had squandered, Ferguson retorted that in future he would take them himself.
“I am disappointed about our inability to hammer home our advantage,” he said. “I spoke to the team before about the importance of goal difference. We lost the title last season on goal difference and I don’t ever want to see that again.
“The chances we had in this game meant we should have put it to bed a long time ago,” he said. “You look at the scoreline and you think it must have been a close game. It wasn’t a close game at all. I know there were a lot of bookings but it didn’t get near to the Manchester United-Arsenal games of the past. Nowhere near.
“Of course, I was concerned as the second half wore on because we were in danger of self-destruction. Arsenal had possession without really hurting us but, thank God, we got the second because, if they had equalised in stoppage time, it would have been an embarrassment.”
However, the majority of the embarrassment was confined to the away dressing room. For differing reasons neither the first nor the last goals of the game were celebrated, despite the fact that both Robin van Persie’s and Santi Cazorla’s were exquisitely executed.
Despite dipping his shot beyond David de Gea, the man from Spain’s wild northern shores barely raised a hand in salute. Mike Dean was about to blow his final whistle and the goal would be nothing more than a consolation.
Van Persie’s reluctance was also understandable. Those who had once idolised him and who would probably still ask for his autograph if their paths crossed in a street or an airport lounge, had directed a tirade of crude, witless abuse at him which stopped when the match was two and a half minutes old.
Thomas Vermaelen made a thorough-going hash of attempting to clear a low, routine ball, almost falling backwards in the process. Van Persie seized on the opportunity and delivered a shot that sped between the defender’s legs and into the corner of Vito Mannone’s net. He did not celebrate.
Perhaps the anger directed at Van Persie could be fathomed. The artist’s son from Rotterdam had been one of the most impassioned defender of Wenger’s style of football and, unlike Thierry Henry or Cesc Fabregas, he had not gone to Barcelona but to a direct competitor.
There was more justifiable anger at the men Arsenal had attempted to replace him with. Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were utterly anonymous figures. At left back, Andre Santos, who came to Arsenal last year, was proof that not all Brazilian footballers are naturally gifted. On this form, Santos would have struggled to get a game on Camber Sands, let alone the Copacabana.
His failings were ruthlessly exploited to the extent that Van Persie might have found himself not celebrating a hat-trick. A fabulous diagonal pass from Rooney, with whom he is forming an instinctive understanding, found the Dutchman in space and his shot slapped against Mannone’s gloves.
In the second half, Van Persie had an opportunity he confessed was even easier than the one he scored from. A delicate chip from Ashley Young gave him more time than he thought, although because he imagined Vermaelen was closer than he was, Van Persie rushed his shot.
It scarcely mattered because, moments later, Manchester United had the second goal that snuffed this game out. Rooney provided a perfect cross that, amid less-than-perfect defending, Patrice Evra headed home in front of the Stretford End.
Ten years ago, Arsenal’s supporters had sat in those same seats to celebrate winning a championship that Wenger said would mark a shift in the balance of power in English football. Now they shouted at him to “sort it out”, a plea that not even Herbert Chapman himself could have answered.
Man Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea, Da Silva, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Cleverly (Anderson 61), Carrick; Valencia (Nani 82), Rooney, Young; Van Persie.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos; Arteta, Wilshere; Ramsey (Walcott 52), Carzola, Podolsk (Arshavin 82); Giroud.
Referee: Mike Dean Match
Man of the match: Van Persie (Man United)