1. United v Arsenal is no longer one of the biggest games of the season
They’re arguably the two biggest teams of the Premier League era. True, Chelsea have won more titles than Arsenal, but Chelsea have only been in the equation since Roman Abramovich’s millions launched them into the elite. The Gunners have been United’s biggest title rivals since Arsene Wenger was appointed manager in 1996, and games between the two over the last 16 years have been fraught with controversy, tension and significance – alas this is no more.
Who can forget the image of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira squaring up to each other in the tunnel at Highbury…before the game had even kicked off in February 2005.
There was ‘Pizzagate’ in October 2004. Nicknamed ‘the battle of the buffet’, United won a frenetic game 2-0 at Old Trafford to end the ‘Invincibles’ 49 game unbeaten run and if an already spicy encounter hadn’t been a big enough feast, Sir Alex Ferguson was hit in the face with a slice of pizza in the tunnel following the final whistle, Cesc Fabregas believed to have been the thrower.
There was the feisty affair at Old Trafford in September 2003, dubbed ‘the battle of Old Trafford’, anything but a dull 0-0 draw. Vieira was sent off and after Ruud van Nistelrooy missed a last minute penalty, he was jeered by Arsenal defenders, memorably Martin Keown, and players from both sides were charged after the game by the FA.
Probably the most memorable game, at least in United fans’ eyes, was the FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park in our treble-winning season, Ryan Giggs’ iconic goal topping off what had been a truly amazing game.
For Arsenal fans, there was the solitary Sylvain Wiltord goal in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in May 2002 that won them the title.
Arsenal v United games have provided me with some of my happiest and most instantly recognisable moments in my life as a Red, but the rivalry is at its most uninspiring stage that I can ever remember. Yes, last season’s amazing 8-2 win was brilliant if you’re a United supporter, but the Arsenal we came up against that day was so disjointed, so lifeless, that it was strange to watch.
There may have only been one goal separating the teams in this weekend’s game, although it might as well have been eight. Arsenal did not show up, they appeared as lost as they were in the 8-2 defeat last season, with United wasting a host of chances, and the visitors offering very little in return.
The duels with the men from the Emirates have been replaced by tussles with Chelsea and now a resurgent Manchester City, and while United have kept pace with the financial juggernauts, the North Londoners have slipped behind, and are now in danger of becoming a spent force.
2. A good all-round performance at home
Finally, some semblance of the usual United was in place at Old Trafford on Saturday. Ok, yes, Arsenal were woeful, but in part, that was down to United returning to something resembling our usual selves. We didn’t concede an early goal, we were sharp from the first whistle, we pressed forward menacingly, we were resilient when we didn’t have the ball and everyone put in a shift. For once David de Gea won’t get a mention in Monday’s papers because he didn’t have a great deal to do, thanks to a very solid performance from the back four and a defence which has attracted its fair share of criticism this season. It was probably our best performance of the campaign so far. The defensive unit, despite dealing with a multitude of injuries, has been highlighted for all the wrong reasons so far this year, leaking early and too many goals in general, but on Saturday, they were the best thing about us. Jonny Evans and Rafael have been two of our best players so far this season and are getting better and better every time I watch them. Rio Ferdinand is criticised because of his age and that time seems to be catching up with him, but he’s still a defender of huge quality and is still a vital individual to this team and our chances of silverware this season. I was most happy for Patrice Evra against Arsenal. He’s had a tough 18 months and, like Ferdinand, has been singled out for his diminishing form, with his age and speed being highlighted. Last season he had the whole Suarez saga hanging over him and the death of his brother, while he’s hardly shone in the first quarter of the season, but against Arsenal he was back to something like his best. Apart from his crucial goal, he was sharp defensively, kept his concentration, read the Arsenal frontmen and, as usual, barrelled forward to support United attacks. Hopefully he and the United defence can keep it up.
3. We don’t seem to be heeding Sir Alex Ferguson’s goal difference warning
When asked what their worst moment supporting Manchester United is, almost every single fan would say the last day of last season, on which we lost the title on goal difference. It was tough to take, it still is. In the aftermath of City’s amazing comeback and title triumph, Fergie said that never again would his team lose a title in that way. Yet, despite the memory of the final day being fresh in the memory of every fan, and I’m sure every United player involved that day, we are taking liberties this season. Arsenal were there for the taking on Saturday and while I don’t think we’ll see the likes of an 8-2 scoreline again anytime soon, it certainly could have been another 6-1 yesterday. Arsenal ‘keeper Vito Mannone made some decent stops but United’s profligacy in front of goal was alarming. One of Mannone’s saves, when he put it behind for the corner that led to Evra’s goal, really should have brought Robin van Persie his second goal. He had more time than he realised and took it quicker than he needed to. Antonio Valencia should have put the game beyond Arsenal just after the restart when it looked like he attempted to flick van Persie’s centre in, and Rooney’s penalty just before the break, had it gone in, would have buried the visitors. Rooney said after the game that he was disappointed with his spot kick miss and the team’s failure to put Arsenal away in general, and in games against more capable opposition, we would have been punished. Even when we did go 2-0 ahead, we seemed content with our lead, instead of going for the kill. If the players don’t want to feel like they did on May 13 ever again, we need to restore our cutting edge and not let up when we’re in the ascendancy.
4. Spot off
Speaking of missed chances, Rooney’s poor spot kick yesterday was our fourth missed penalty of the season. Rooney’s miss comes after van Persie’s missed chipped effort against Southampton, Javier Hernandez’s tame kick at home against Wigan and Nani’s awful miss in the Champions League game at home to Galatasaray. Anyone can miss a penalty but all of our misses this season have been awful conversions. Van Persie’s was a foolish attempt at trickery, Nani seemed to be over compensating for a poor start to the season, Hernandez’s was just weak and Rooney’s was well wide. Luckily for United, none of our misses have proved costly – we’ve not dropped a single point due to a fluffed attempt from 12 yards. Despite this, we need to cut it out and the issue adds to the problem we’re having of not pressing home our advantage in games and taking advantage of what should normally be a certain goal. Rooney had scored his previous four penalties but in the games against Galatasaray and Wigan, neither he nor van Persie were on the field, but it will be interesting to see whether the Englishman continues on spot kick duty for the remainder of the season, with such a reliable penalty taker in the side (RvP).
5. RvP already proving his worth
£24 million is a tremendous amount of money but van Persie is already well on his way to proving that it’s one of the best pieces of business Fergie has ever done. 10 goals in 12 games is impressive enough, but it’s the effect the Dutchman is having on the rest of the team that’s impressing me. His goalscoring form is just carrying on from the prolific season he had last year, it’s why be bought him, but it’s how easily he’s fitted into the United set-up that’s really impressive. He’s dove-tailing beautifully with Rooney and he really could be the difference between losing the title last year and winning it this year. He was unfazed by the big occasion of facing his old club on Saturday and got his goal after less than three minutes. He wasted one really good chance after that but his all-round contribution to the cause means that, for me, he is well on his way to not only repaying his price tag, but also becoming a United legend. He’s clinical in possession, he brings others into play, he makes assists for others, he’s deadly in front of goal and he puts in a shift too. Everyone says up front is the least of United’s worries but RVP is showing exactly why Fergie didn’t hesitate to pay £24 million for an injury-prone 29-year-old.
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