This performance from Arsène Wenger's team yesterday was not so much a performance as a cry for help. The scoreline was not so much a scoreline as the early stages of an Indian batting collapse.
This was the moment for Arsenal when the issues ceased simply to be about a summer of high-profile departures, a badly-timed clutch of suspensions and injuries or a manager eccentrically unwilling to dip his toe into the transfer market. This was not a result that could be explained away by a simple series of coinciding misfortunes. Rather, this result said far too much about the state of the club than anyone has dared admit, and none of it good.
Yes, it was a weakened Arsenal team that came to Old Trafford yesterday and, no doubt the game they had to win in the last six days – if they had to choose – was their Champions League qualifier second leg against Udinese on Wednesday night. But the butchering that they took at Old Trafford yesterday was traumatising for a club who have, in their recent history, been United's closest rivals in the Premier League era and yet left the stadium yesterday like some lower-league wretches whipped in the FA Cup third round.
There are the mitigating factors, the suspensions for Gervinho and Alex Song, the injuries to Jack Wilshere, Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs, among the eight missing but no club with the ambition and status of Arsenal should send a team to Old Trafford and ship eight goals. It is not the end of the world for Arsenal, we are not even at the end of August yet, but anyone who thinks that the significance of a result like this, even placed in context, can simply be dismissed with a wave of the hand, is simply not seeing the big picture at Arsenal.
Three games into the season, Wenger said yesterday, was no time to make judgements about this Arsenal team. Asked afterwards whether he might have got his management of the club wrong in recent years, Wenger replied with his customary good grace: "At least you should give me some time to see if I have got it completely wrong." And, of course, he is right on that score but whether he likes it or not yesterday's result was another reason for the creeping doubt at Arsenal about their manager to spread further.
This was a woeful Arsenal performance and sadly it exposed young players such as Carl Jenkinson, who was sent off in the second half; Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a second-half substitute, to a situation from which they should have been protected. There was precious little leadership from the likes of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny. Even Robin van Persie, who scored Arsenal's second, had a first-half penalty saved.
But just as crucially it was a touchstone performance from Sir Alex Ferguson's young generation of players, from Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling up to the older hands such as Patrice Evra, Anderson and Ashley Young. But no-one was quite the equal to the prince among them all, Wayne Rooney whose hat-trick – two sensational free-kicks and a penalty – was the crowning glory on a giddy day for Old Trafford.
It was a comic book game, so full of incident that moments which could define lesser matches were worthy of only a passing mention. What to make of David De Gea, who made a stunning penalty save in the first half only to let Theo Walcott's shot go through his legs in injury-time before the break? What of Welbeck, scorer of United's first goal on 22 minutes who then pulled a hamstring before half-time and is probably out of England's two Euro 2012 qualifiers?
Yesterday, none of those smaller details seemed to matter as this young United team rampaged through their opponents, matching and then exceeding the eye-popping 5-1 victory for Manchester City at White Hart Lane just an hour before.
This United team started hard and they did not stop. They scored their first in the 22nd minute and their eighth in the 91st minute of injury time at the end of the game. They finished against ten men but it should really have been nine – Andrei Arshavin, already on a booking, was given a reprieve by Howard Webb for a second foul on Young on 35 minutes that should have been his second yellow and goodbye.
It began with Welbeck muscling Koscielny out of his road and heading a scooped pass from Anderson, that was allowed to bounce in the Arsenal area, past Szczesny. The second was a shot swept from the left by the impressive Young, into the far top corner of the Arsenal goal. The third was a Rooney free-kick tapped short to Young and then curled into the top corner by the former after Jenkinson had picked up his first booking.
Arsenal were three down in the space of 13 minutes and Szczesny could have done nothing about any of them. De Gea's penalty save came after the first goal but by half-time the United goalkeeper had done less well, letting through Walcott's shot after Tomas Rosicky's through ball.
For the first 15 minutes of the second half, Arsenal did not acquit themselves too badly at all. Then after the hour came United's fourth: an identically worked free-kick between Rooney and Young in which Rooney completely wrong-footed Szczesny. Goal No 5 was Nani's dink over Szczesny from Rooney's throughball. Goal No 6 was Young's cut-back to substitute Park, who struck into the far corner.
Having conceded another three goals in six minutes, Arsenal claimed one back through Van Persie after good work by Jenkinson. 6-2. Then Jenkinson went off for a second booking, a push on substitute Javier Hernandez and Arsenal opened up again. Goal No 7: a Rooney penalty after Walcott's trip on Evra. Goal No 8: another beauty from distance from Young.
At the end of the game, Van Persie tried in vain to summon Arshavin, Rosicky and Marouane Chamakh, a late substitute, as they walked, head down, towards the tunnel. But none of them were in any mood for turning back to salute the Arsenal fans in the corner of Old Trafford although Van Persie did his duty nonetheless. At the very least you could call it a day to forget for Arsenal. The trouble for them is that days like these can linger on in the memory for years.
Substitutes: Man Utd Hernandez 6 (Welbeck, 35), Park 7 (Nani, 68), Giggs 6 (Anderson, 68). Arsenal Oxlade-Chamberlain 5 (Coquelin, 62), Lansbury (Walcott, 83), Chamakh (Van Persie, 83). Booked: Man Utd Evans, Young. Arsenal Jenkinson, Arshavin, Djourou. Sent off: Arsenal Jenkinson. Man of the match Rooney. Match rating 8/10. Possession: Man Utd 59% Arsenal 41%. Attempts on target: Man Utd 15 Arsenal 13. Referee H Webb (S Yorkshire). Attendance 75,448.