It wasn’t so much the fact of the defeat itself, of course. There are few clubs on the planet that would expect to come away from Old Trafford with a win but this was not really the matter at hand. What will have been vexing Arsenal supporters this afternoon will have been the manner of their defeat. This match was emphatically not the sort of titantic battle of wills and egos that we have come to expect from such fixtures in recent years. This was a match between championship contenders and a mid-table side, a welcome perfunctory Saturday afternoon stroll for a Manchester United squad that has been exerted by two consecutive matches against Chelsea in the last six days, and the final result was one which, if anything, flattered the losers even more than it flattered the winners.
The paucity of Arsenals performance this afternoon may even have been sufficient to cast a shadow over what should have been the over-arching story of this match – Robin Van Persies first match against the club that he called home for eight years. Van Persie had his moment, of course, scoring inside three minutes after an increasingly customary mistake by Thomas Vermaelen, and in some respects it almost felt like a relief to have this sub-plot defined so early in the game. From here on, the match fell into what looked like a Tramadol-esque fug, punctuated by a sloppy missed penalty in first half stoppage time by Wayne Rooney after a handball by Cazorla which even the most swivel-eyed of conspiracy theorists would be unable to debunk, a second goal midway through the second half by Patrice Evra, a reasonably inarguable red card for Jack Wilshere and a nicely taken stoppage-time consolation goal from Cazorla which added a layer of scantly-earned respectability to a final result which might have been even worse for them had it not been for that late consolation, Rooneys profligacy from the penalty spot and a somewhat extraordinary second half miss by Antonio Valencia, who demonstrated in side-footing the ball well wide of the Arsenal goal in the second half when it seemed as if it should have been easier for him to score.
This, then, was a match that reflected the current orthodoxy of the Premier League. Manchester United remain a serious contender for the title. Arsenal, meanwhile, played with an uncharacteristic timidity and an apparently chronic lack of self- confidence and verve. We might have expected the real value of Tuesday nights amazing League Cup comeback against Reading – hands up who else forgot for the evening that Reading are in the Premier League at the moment – to be psychological, as the team reminded itself that scoring goals for fun is, well, fun. This afternoon, however, much of the optimism which followed this result was undone by their former player within a few minutes of the kick-off, and the result of this was rapid return of the dark cloud that seems to hang over The Emirates Stadium these days. Discontent was in the air amongst the 3,000 supporters that had made the long trip north from London, and it seems likely that the anger aimed at Stan Kroenke and Ivan Gazidis, which has been intensifying against them again in recent weeks, will only grow louder again until the team gets itself back on its feet again.
And, of course, it probably will get back on its feet again. It was a little over thirteen months ago that the same conversation was being held with regard to Arsenal, a now-familiar story of selling talismanic players followed up with disappointing performances in the Premier League. Last season, the team recovered to finish in third place in the table and earn itself another year with its snout in the Champions League trough. And much as there is a tendency for knees to jerk in such situations, we would still bet on a manager as experienced as Arsene Wenger being plenty capable of turning this team around. Patience amongst the Arsenal support, however, is wearing thin and as a sign of the times this was not a performance from which many positives can be taken. With Chelsea noticeably improved upon last season and both Manchester City and Manchester United continuing to grind out results – frequently, it seems, in spite of themselves – it might just be that fourth place in the table this season will be the absolute best that Arsenal supporters can hope for in the league this season.
And it is worth remembering that those Arsenal supporters that travelled to Old Trafford this afternoon may be just about the only people connected with the club to emerge from todays trip with any credit. They out-sung the home crowd for the whole ninety minutes, and it is difficult to argue that, while no set of football supporters have an automatic entitlement to anything in terms of results and trophies, the 3,000 that made this journey certainly deserved more than they got from a lethargic and unimaginative team this afternoon. Such is the nature of football support, and they make take a little consolation from the fact that Tottenham Hotspur were, if anything, even worse than they were in their match later this afternoon against Wigan Athletic, whilst Chelsea and Everton also failed to exploit possibilities brought about by Arsenals capitulation at Old Trafford. It’s a small consolation, but when we consider what they went through at lunchtime today, any straw might well feel like a decent one to grab hold of at the moment for the supporters of Arsenal Football Club.
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