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Sep 17, 2006

Arsenal find success with Plan A.

Such is the aesthetic and technical perfection of Plan A, it has long appeared, that Arsenal were unwilling to even contemplate Plan B. Nothing - not the threat of missing out on the Champions League, nor their worst start to a Premiership campaign, nor even that the first month of the league season had elapsed without them taking the lead - would prompt them to alter their gameplan. They were right.

Because, with a certain contrariness, Arsenal's first Premiership victory came at Old Trafford. And it was utterly deserved. Their winner, scored five minutes from time by Emmanuel Adebayor, bore the hallmarks of a sucker punch, but it had long been threatened.

'I told the players to be faithful to the way we want to play,' said Arsene Wenger. 'We do not have to question that. In the first three games, we did not get what we deserved, or what we could have got. People come quickly to conclusions and everybody had written us off. You open the newspapers and we will play in Division 1 next year because we are bottom of the league.'

And their win was the product of a tactical superiority as well as their greater fluency in possession. The only tinkering to the masterplan was Wenger's reversion to the 4-5-1 that served them so well in last year's Champions League.

It provided a springboard for attacks and enabled Tomas Rosicky and Cesc Fabregas to exert a greater influence in a midfield where they outnumbered Manchester United. 'I did that today because I thought that would suit the players,' was a vindicated Wenger's explanation. 'It allowed us to control the middle of the park.'

In one respect, Sir Alex Ferguson was similarly constant in his thinking. In another, he was depressingly negative. Unbeaten in seven games against Arsenal, the Scot seemed to attribute it to the presence of scrappers in his midfield. Hence Michael Carrick, whose languid passing once prompted Wenger to make a bid, was sacrificed for the more attritional qualities of John O'Shea. It proved a mistake.

But, despite Arsenal's excellence in midfield, victory would have been impossible without Adebayor's contribution. An ungainly figure and an irregular goalscorer, he occupied with United defence with ceaseless running and, while his judgment has been questioned in the past, proved capable of anticipating each pass from midfield.

And when Alexander Hleb's slide-rule pass found Adebayor veering round Tomasz Kuszczak, the Manchester United goalkeeper brought him down. Graham Poll awarded a penalty and, for the Pole, this appeared to rank high on the list of disastrous debuts. Not so, however; Gilberto Silva's spot kick was saved and the United newcomer went on to excel. But for a fine parry, he menace of Rosicky's long-range shooting would have yielded a goal and Kuszczak completed a hat-trick of fine saves from Adebayor.

Eventually, the striker prevailed, getting his reward for a series of runs behind the last defender and benefiting from a perfectly-weighted pass from Fabregas. It stemmed from a mistake by Cristiano Ronaldo, but Ferguson was in no mood to blame the winger. 'Cristiano lost possession because he tried to beat men, that's the kind of player he is and the kind of player we want here,' he said.

With Wayne Rooney off colour, Ronaldo posed United's major threat. One powerful half-volley was goalbound before striking the flying Jens Lehmann in the face. If anything, that save was surpassed by a later effort to thwart the substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

'I can't deny Arsenal deserved to win,' conceded Ferguson. His pre-match comments had provoked more debate. Though it hardly appeared his latest attempt at mind games, the Scot's assertion that Arsenal were in a transitional state was delivered from a position of superiority (by 10 points). Nonetheless, it appeared to rule them out of the title race.

Wenger, however, disputed that theory: 'I don't feel we are in transition at all. I am at Arsenal football club and we are very ambitious. We want to win the championship and I believe we can. We were in the final of the Champions League. You don't keep Juventus and Real Madrid out without that kind of quality.'

You don't, and it was a reminder that their defence functioned well, with 19-year-old Johan Djourou giving an impressively mature performance.

Evolving, progressing and developing Arsenal may be but, Wenger is adamant, in transition they are not. As long as Plan A is executed with such elan, they have no need to change it. After 'Grand Slam Sunday', Liverpool's participation in the title race is in doubt, but Arsenal's is not.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Emmanuel Adebayor - It is fair to say that the jury is still out on the Togolese striker. A tremendous performance and a belated first goal of the season later, it is fair to say he has won over many of his critics and ensured they prospered without Thierry Henry, which few anticipated. Kuszczak, Lehmann, Rosicky and Fabregas all merit honourable mentions, too.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: There had been warning signs already. Defensive concentration remains a problem, there is a reliance on Rooney for inspiration against the better teams and the injured Ryan Giggs was sorely missed. This may yet be their strongest title challenge in four seasons, but they have flaws to iron out.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Wenger dodged a question as to whether they are the most attractive footballing team in the country. Many neutrals, however, would say they are; the challenge is not just to reproduce their flowing football against lesser teams - which they often do - but to be clinical enough to force victory, a problem so far this season.

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