When Manchester United and Arsenal meet, excitement is guaranteed – Saturday’s match demonstrated RVP’s role in the gulf between the two sides
There’s something refreshingly consistent about a Premier League clash between Arsenal and Manchester United. The fixture has become a Barclays seal of action and excitement; the audience can rely on a blend of intrigue and suspense, and goals, often of the highest calibre, are almost a guarantee.
By Arsene Wenger’s own admission, the clash doesn’t quite have the magnitude that it did, say, seven years ago. Whilst in days gone by the head-to-head would have been a top of the table battle, the highest stakes, a veritable ‘six pointer’, today there are others who provide a marked gap between the two clubs. Rafa Benitez’s very personal struggles with Sir Alex, as well as Mourinho’s swaggering success have perhaps brought other fixtures on a par with, or even to surpass, the twice annual bout between the reds of Manchester and London. That is without considering the renewed successes of Spurs and, to a greater extent, City, both of whom have sharpened animosity closer to home.
The reality is that whilst Manchester United still remain ‘the team to beat’ in England’s top division, Arsenal are slipping down the league’s hierarchy. They finished above Chelsea and Tottenham last season, but arguably both have stronger squads this time around, while City and United have strengthened and invested, buoyed by the former’s success and the latter’s spending, they appear to be pulling away from Arsene Wenger’s men.
It’s no secret that Robin Van Persie was the emotional heart of Saturday’s fixture, and his change in postcode is symptomatic of the growing ground that exists between these two giants.
Much has been written and said about Arsene Wenger’s dubious transfer policy, and the alarming alacrity with which the club’s finest players depart at will. Whilst Van Persie’s move to Manchester was the successor to the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, neither left after such an influential and monumental year in North London, and neither turned up at a club with such an emotive attachment to Arsenal as United
The sensible money was on a significant Van Persie impact in his first match against the side he had served for 8 years, and those who foresaw it weren’t disappointed. I doubt that Thomas Vermaelen was expecting to contribute so readily to his former captain’s big day; the Arsenal skipper gifting his predecessor a goal only a handful of minutes in, an uncomfortable bounce, a mistimed surge, and RVP – the predator – did what he does best.
Wenger grumbled his grandmother’s grumble on the touchline as the ball flew past Vito Mannone, and later criticised his captain for his mishap, but he is at least partly to blame – what do you expect to happen when you cash in on such a natural finisher and pack him off to your fierce rivals? There was a steady inevitability about Van Persie’s contribution and it seems only Wenger was taken by surprise.
Late in the first half, United nearly doubled their lead from the spot: Santi Cazorla, otherwise outstanding this season, was punished for raised arms in the box, and Wayne Rooney stood up to take the resulting penalty. Surprisingly, the striker didn’t look confident – despite an enviable scoring record from such occasions – and missed the target with a scuffed finish. The missed effort could have rejuvenated the Gunners, but instead, they failed to get a grip on the game, and it was United, and not they, who proceeded to take control and create the finer chances.
The lead was doubled after the hour, as Patty Evra galloped into the box to meet an inviting cross, beating Mannone – who had threatened to emerge as an influential figure for Arsenal. The game then settled into a fairly comfortable stand off for the remaining twenty minutes. The Londoners lacked invention and endeavour; Theo Walcott, surprisingly omitted by Wenger after his heroics against Reading in mid-week, made a late appearance, the fans having beckoned for their young frontman for much of the match, but he failed to ignite Arsenal’s lumbering menace.
Santi Cazorla pulled a late goal back as the game drew to a close, but he reacted to his own sumptuous curling effort with a resigned expression, realising that the game was up, and probably thinking more about his penalty penalisation earlier than his effortless ability to caress a football into the top bins. By this time, Arsenal had already been reduced to ten men; Jack Wilshere, starting only his second game after 17 months on the sidelines, sent to the stands after a late tackle on Evra and a second yellow card.
Wilshere will return, and Arsenal will improve, but Cazorla’s effort will fail to mask a bleak finale for the Gunners.
Despite all that succeeded it, Van Persie’s early opener set the tempo here, and it was hard to see Arsenal ever creeping back into the match after going behind so early on. Whilst, ostensibly, the game had everything – the contest was never as intense as has been the case previously between these two, and ultimately amounted to a fairly tepid affair. These are different days, I tell myself, and these two beasts don’t size each other up they way they used to.
Wenger, filemot in defeat, can grimace and elude as much as he desires, but pretty passing and a handful of half-chances fail to conceal the ground lost on United. The performance, as much as the result, demonstrated the chasm that is emerging between the pair – the defection of Van Persie, once such a talisman for the Arsenal, appears to have confirmed the shift in power, and resigned the Gunners to a time, for now at least, outside the glow of a title race.
There was an inevitability about Van Persie’s flourish, and from then on, an inevitability about the result – it seems only Arsene didn’t see it coming.
Van Persie at the heart of a fixture that’s not what it was