Ruthless Arsenal in no mood to show mercy

Middlesbrough 0 Arsenal 4
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The Independent Football

Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have long disputed which is the Premiership's best side, but in the wake of games like these there seems no question which is the most beautiful.

Arsenal shredded Middlesbrough like a rapier slicing through silk, or, given the abject way Middlesbrough performed yesterday evening, cutting through old rope might be a more appropriate metaphor. They dealt with them much like they brushed aside other, lesser teams in the first half of last season; delivering an early knockout blow before sitting back and conserving energy. The three goals which killed the contest by the interval were all precision-made, a blend of art and science.

Those who predicted the Premiership would be a three-horse race have been given plenty of early supporting evidence and when Sylvain Wiltord clipped home his second, those who made the journey from London to Teesside began the chant of: "We are top of the league". This they are, if only on alphabetical order.

Middlesbrough, it has to be said, gave Arsenal plenty of help. Gaizka Mendieta's international clearance had not arrived by the time this mismatch began and on this evidence he must have wondered if it was worth waiting for.

If the great Basque playmaker can recapture the form that took him to two European Cup finals with Valencia, he will make an unquestioned difference to this team, but there is a limit to what anyone can do in a midfield which commits so many basic errors. Doriva and George Boateng surrendered possession with the kind of vague wastefulness which was invariably punished.

Wenger and Thierry Henry, who shone most brightly in a dazzling display, alluded to the match at the Reebok Stadium last spring when Arsenal's failure to hold on to a two-goal lead had catastrophic consequences for their hold on the title. Now, there is a determination to press a game to the very end.

"Had we done the same against Bolton when we were two up, tried to pressure them and score more goals, maybe we would have come away with a win," said Henry, who, remarkably given the excellence of his performance, confessed to being less than fully fit. Arsenal's opening goal, he reflected, was not his "usual type", although the build-up play was of a rare vintage. Patrick Vieira's driven pass into Freddie Ljungberg's path set up a shot which Mark Schwarzer could only parry into Henry's boots.

His manager, who reflected with a smile that Manchester United had actually performed better in Ferguson's absence at Newcastle, said that even at 3-0 up "there was a desire to keep it serious. When we scored the fourth goal, then it was over".

It was over long before, probably when Pires, following a lovely interchange with Ashley Cole, sent over another fatally precise cross to provide Gilberto Silva's first Premiership goal. The contest was certainly dead when, in the 22nd minute, a rare Boro attack broke down and Malcolm Christie lost the ball to Pires.

With other, more ordinary, sides, there would have been little immediate danger with play deep in the opposition half, but in fewer than 20 seconds the ball was in Schwarzer's net. Pires fed Henry and a blurring dash down the left flank led to another perfect cross which Wiltord steered home.

There would be few sides able to have competed with a team in this mood but, aside from a few surging runs from Szilard Nemeth and a savage shot by Juninho when it was all rather academic, Boro did not play as though they believed in themselves.

Steve McClaren's debut as Middlesbrough manager was a 4-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Riverside and was part of an opening sequence of four successive defeats. They have started this campaign with two losses, although only if they go down at Leicester tomorrow will there be a real twinge of anxiety by the Tees.

Goals: Henry (6) 0-1. Silva (13) 0-2. Wiltord (22) 0-3. Wiltord (60) 0-4.

Middlesbrough: (3-4-1-2) Schwarzer 5, Southgate 5, Cooper 6, Rigott 4 (Davies 5, 66), Parnaby 5, Doriva 3, Boateng 3, Wright 4, Juninho 6, Christie 4, Nemeth 6 (Downing 85). Substitutes not used: Stockdale, Wilson, Nash (gk).

Arsenal: (4-4-2) Lehmann 6, Lauren 6, Campbell 7, Toure 6, Cole 5, Pires 8 (Edu 5, 74), Vieira 8, Silva 6, Ljungberg 7 (Parlour 74 5), Wiltord 7 (Bergkamp 5, 74), Henry 8. Substitutes not used: Keown, Bergkamp, Taylor (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Cooper

Man of the match: Henry.

Attendance: 29,450.