They are simply not physically equipped for fight-ball, but when it it comes to a football match, Arsène Wenger's young Arsenal braves have few peers. The point was proved again yesterday in a magnificent match that often resembled what Sir Alex Ferguson called "fantasy football, playground stuff – you attack, we'll attack". Unfortunately, the lesson will not be lost on future opponents less committed than Manchester United to the beautiful game, who will inevitably tend towards confrontational and containing football against Arsenal.
A failure to deal with Stoke City's direct approach last weekend brought a third defeat of the season by unfashionable opposition and a rash of media inquisitions earlier in the season than usual about whether Wenger has lost the plot. Admirably, he is not for turning and retains the support for his beliefs of the board and a majority of supporters, as was made clear at the club's annual general meeting a fortnight ago. Yesterday his name was ostentatiously chanted as soon as Arsenal's second goal went in just after half-time.
It was scored by the excellent Samir Nasri, who had also claimed the first, the only concern at that point being whether Arsenal might fall foul of the sort of comeback that Tottenham had mounted here 10 days earlier. Had United pulled one goal back earlier than the 90th minute, it could have happened, but this time Wenger's team kept pushing forward in search of a third goal and fortune favoured the braves.
That entitled them to legitimate feelings of vindication. "Last week we were not rubbish as everyone said," Cesc Fabregas said of the Stoke defeat. "This is maybe the best we've played this season." Wenger had earned his pride at a victory that takes his team two points ahead of the champions, who nevertheless retain a game in hand at home to Fulham.
"It was a very important result mathematically and also to show what kind of spirit, determination and mental attitude we have," he said. "The difference was maybe that we took our chances and they did not."
The superiority of his midfield, with Nasri, Fabregas and Denilson playing their little triangles around a disappointing Michael Carrick and Anderson, was a factor too, as Ferguson grudgingly acknowledged: "Sometimes you have to hold your hand up. Arsenal played good football at times. The number of chances we had was incredible and we let ourselves down in that area." Those chances came right from the start, initially all in front of Manuel Almunia. Panicked into picking up Mikaël Silvestre's back-pass in the third minute, the Arsenal goalkeeper was fortunate that his defensive wall blocked Anderson's shot following the indirect free-kick and that Carrick's follow-up was wayward.
Soon a lovely passing move flowed through Cristiano Ronaldo's cross and Park Ji-Sung's dummy to Wayne Rooney, whose shot was pushed out for Dimitar Berbatov to knock in, but from an offside position. Rooney, one header apart, did not come as close again in a performance to give the watching Fabio Capello much to mull.
From the 10th minute on, Arsenal began to play the sort of football the Emirates has come to know and love; by half-time they had established supremacy and a lead. Twice Nicklas Bendtner failed with headers from enticing left-wing crosses and when Edwin van der Sar punched unconvincingly from Fabregas's free-kick, Abou Diaby's shot was deflected away. In the 22nd minute, came another free-kick curled in from the same source. Berbatov headed out, only as far as Nasri, who hit an immediate shot that took a touch off Gary Neville to send it wide of a flat-footed goalkeeper.
The capacity crowd, belying their quiet reputation, responded to the realisation that they were watching something special. Attack followed attack, often from each team in turn. Silvestre, recovering well against his former club, almost poked in a goal against them, then crossed for Theo Walcott at the far post to drive into the ground and over the bar. United, however, were still a threat, Neville's fine pass sending Park away for a shot that was pushed out by Almunia, who had to save from Anderson at the end of a breathless half.
The second half hardly lost anything in comparison, starting with a goal three minutes in. It was another fine build-up through the Arsenal midfield, climaxed by Fabregas's turn and pass to Nasri. In more space than United's central defenders should have allowed him, the Frenchman shot wide of Van der Sar's right hand. "Really poor defensive play," Ferguson fumed.
United's best chance until their late goal came immediately afterwards, Park chipping to the far post where Ronaldo volleyed wide. From then on, introducing Ryan Giggs and Carlos Tevez, the visitors stormed forward and Arsenal counter-attacked them, creating marginally the better chances. Once they had four men against two but Diaby's cross found one of the United pair, Anderson. With six minutes of added time indicated, United's other substitute Rafael da Silva, hit a superb shot into the far corner of the net. But this time, Arsenal held out and Bendtner even had the best chance of all for a final goal.
Man for man, by Steve Tongue
Manuel Almunia 7/10
Back in goal after a stomach ailment, he conceded an unnecessary free-kick by handling a back-pass right at the start, but recovered well until having to be replaced after taking a nasty facial knock from Michael Carrick.
Bacary Sagna 6/10
Had Park Ji-Sung and then Cristiano Ronaldo to deal with and just about held his own. Was lucky to escape with his lapse in concentration when United had a goal disallowed in the first five minutes.
William Gallas 7/10
Kept tight control of Wayne Rooney and led like a captain for once with some doughty defending in the last half-hour as United stormed forward. Made his delight clear at the finish.
Mikael Silvestre 8/10
Picked ahead of Kolo Touré against his old club, and started nervously but settled. He was also asurprising force in attack, whether at set-pieces or crossing from the left.
Gael Clichy 5/10
A terrific tussle with Ronaldo, in which he did not fare aswell as the former Arsenal left-back, Ashley Cole. Caught out of position more than once and was booked for fouling the winger.
Theo Walcott 6/10
A speedy presence as ever down the right, though he did not create many chances and put his one scoring opportunity too high.
Cesc Fabregas 7/10
Involved in many of the sweet passing moves that have become the trademark of this Arsène Wenger team, he enabled his side to get the better of the midfield exchanges.
Not the midfield ball-winner Arsenal need on more difficult days than this and may have been overshadowed by midfield colleagues Fabregas and Samir Nasri, but this was his sort of game.
Samir Nasri 8/10
One of his best games since joining the club in the summer. Always dangerous cutting in from the left and took both goals with finely drilled shots.
Abou Diaby 6/10
Used just behind Nicklas Bendtner, in what is clearly not his best position, he dropped deeper once the lead was doubled, then demonstrated his versatility when moved out to the right.
Nicklas Bendnter 8/10
The lone striker in the absence of Emmanuel Adebayor. Held the ball up well, although Adebayor would have been more likely to convert the chances he wasted in each half.
Alex Song for Walcott, 77.
Lukasz Fabianski for Almunia, 78.
Kolo Touré for Diaby, 86.
Song sat in front of the back four and Touré did much the same in shoring up the defence during the last period of intense United pressure. Fabianski did what he had to do and had no chance withthe goal.
Edwin van der Sar 5/10
Not at his most convincing this season, his punching was particularly suspect, as well as some of his kicking. Little he could do about either of Samir Nasri's goals.
Gary Neville 6/10
Experience of these battles was invaluable in dealing with the lively Nasri. Unlucky with deflection for the first goal, he was sacrificed for the younger Rafael da Silva just after the hour.
Rio Ferdinand 5/10
The ease with which Cesc Fabregas turned and sprinted away from him near the end symbolised a less convincing performance than usual from the England centre-half. Lost Nicklas Bendtner once or twice for headers in front of goal.
Nemanja Vidic 6/10
United supporters' song in praise of him rhymes "Serbia" with "murder ya" and he took few prisoners here, but like Ferdinand he allowed the opposition far more chances than normal.
Patrice Evra 6/10
Keen as ever to push forward down the touchline, he still managed to limit Theo Walcott's effectiveness, except for allowing him a clear chance at the far post just before half-time. Booked in the first half.
Cristiano Ronaldo 6/10
Worked both wings to varied effect without ever dazzling. The free-kicks from the winger were more dangerous when whipped in from the flanks than when shot at goal.
Started well, then found the going difficult against Arsenal's twinkling midfielders.
Was replaced by the more attacking Ryan Giggs.
Michael Carrick 4/10
Not the performance to impress the watching England manager Fabio Capello. Played a number of loose passes and was often unable to prevent Arsenal's midfield breaking through. Was also booked for unsporting conduct in the second half.
Park Ji-Sung 7/10
Preferred to Ryan Giggs, and now regarded as one of United's starting XI, he was typically industrious on both flanks and was kept on for the entire 90 minutes.
Dimitar Berbatov 6/10
The Bulgarian would have scored right at the start had he not strayed offside. Dropped deep off Wayne Rooney thereafter to mixed effect, setting up one headed chance for his strike partner but having no more of his own.
Wayne Rooney 4/10
Out of sorts throughout following a couple of wild misses and received his first talking-to early on. Shooting did not improve, nor did being taken off improve his humour.
Rafael da Silva for Neville, 63.
Ryan Giggs for Anderson, 72.
Carlos Tevez for Rooney, 77.
The Welshman added some dash from the centre of midfield and Rafael joined in enthusiastically. They created United's only goal between them, which was superbly volleyed in by the young Brazilian. There was little opportunity, however, for Tevez to make an impact, and questions must be asked of his long-term United future.