Sometimes you wonder how different life would be if Wayne Rooney had signed for the English champions in the summer of 2004, instead of Manchester United. Would Arsène Wenger have tamed the rage any more successfully than Sir Alex Ferguson, would life as the people's champion of the latte-sipping classes of Islington made any difference?
On Saturday, amid the ruins of defeat, Rooney gave more evidence that the giant strides he made for England and United during September and October are now in danger of being forgotten. His run of nine goals in seven games for club and country has been followed by five games (four of them starts) in which he has failed to score at all. Five games in which the old Rooney temperament – from calm to incandescent rage in five seconds flat – has come back at times and put everyone on edge.
Let's be clear: Rooney is scrutinised like no other player in England, because there is no other player quite like him. It is a burden that he bears manfully most of the time but a burden which occasionally just becomes too much for him to handle and, of late, he has looked close to cracking under the strain. When he is happy and confident, Rooney does not throw himself into those suicidal revenge-missions to win back the ball – the kind that are destined to result in a free-kick, or a booking, or worse.
Unfortunately for him, against Arsenal he was at it after 15 minutes, hacking away Theo Walcott's leg from underneath him after he collided with Cesc Fabregas seconds earlier. The referee Howard Webb made the right decision not to book Rooney in an attempt to keep matters calm, but Arsenal were right to be aggrieved when William Gallas was subsequently cautioned for a foul on Patrice Evra. Webb was trying to manage Rooney without using the yellow card, but sometimes he can be beyond help.
Against Hull City nine days ago Rooney threw himself recklessly into a drop-ball with George Boateng, he rose to the bait with the Everton fans at Goodison the week before and again at the Emirates, pointing to the crest on his sleeves that denotes United's title. The provocation was unpleasant, but then it always is from football crowds. Rooney kept a lid on his emotions when he came to the dugout after being substituted but judging by his face it was quite a struggle.
United did not lose on Saturday because of Rooney's performance alone but they desperately needed their No 10 to deliver in the way that Fabregas did for Arsenal, or in the way Rooney has done this season already, most notably for England. The trouble is that Rooney is just not the same player when there is steam coming out of his ears and he seemed not to have calmed down after his foul on Walcott when his best chance arrived in the 18th minute. Anderson and Dimitar Berbatov combined to set Cristiano Ronaldo free on the right and his cut-back was skied by Rooney.
The danger for Rooney is that Carlos Tevez and he are now in competition for one place alongside Berbatov who was, despite the defeat, still brilliant at times. Having started only two of the last eight games, Tevez must now have a case for starting ahead of Rooney against Stoke on Saturday. United's goal came from the impressive Rafael Da Silva who had a brilliant cameo as Gary Neville's right-back replacement.
It was not a disastrous performance by the champions but they could hardly say that their good passages of football opened up many goalscoring chances. That is the same problem that Arsenal have had in the past, although not this time. Samir Nasri took his two goals magnificently, the first deflecting off Neville, and Arsenal could afford to miss a few. Nicklas Bendtner's 11th-minute header springs to mind, so too Abou Diaby's shot blocked by Michael Carrick.
Arsenal pressed United all over the pitch and there were some heroic performances that have been lost in the excitement, especially that of Gaël Clichy who was largely responsible for keeping Ronaldo so quiet. Early in the game he made a hard, decisive tackle on the United winger which – a couple of dribbles notwithstanding and one missed back-post chance – set the tone for an afternoon in which Clichy had the upper hand.
Wenger would have every right to pour scorn on those of us who doubted his team but even he must acknowledge that, impressive though this was, you cannot imagine Arsenal producing the same every week. In fact there is no guarantee they will do the same against Aston Villa at home on Saturday. "Sometimes you have to hold you hand up and say if we are going to get beaten, make sure it is someone who plays good football," Ferguson said. "They play good football at times."
Generous stuff from the United manager but you still sense that Arsenal are not the team he thinks he will have to worry about come May. What this defeat has given Ferguson is cause to consider the way his own team play and that might yet have an effect on the up-and-down season of Rooney.
Goals: Nasri (22) 1-0; Nasri (48) 2-0; R Da Silva (90) 2-1.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia (Fabianski, 77); Sagna, Gallas, Silvestre, Clichy; Walcott (Song, 77), Fabregas, Denilson, Nasri; Diaby (Touré, 86); Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Vela, Ramsey, Wilshere, Djourou.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville (R Da Silva, 63), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Anderson (Giggs, 72), Park; Rooney (Tevez, 76), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Nani, O'Shea, Evans.
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).
Booked: Arsenal Gallas, Sagna, Clichy; Manchester United Evra, Carrick.
Man of the match: Clichy.