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Aug 28, 2011

Fergie's kids give Wenger boys a lesson

Tottenham and Arsenal 3, the two halves of Manchester 13: it is officially grim up North London. It is especially bleak for Arsene Wenger, the visionary who risks appearing blinkered and the legend left looking beleaguered. His glorious reign began 1996, but he has now presided over the first Arsenal team to concede eight goals since 1896; in the process, he sent Manchester United soaring to the top of the Premier League and the Gunners spiralling into introspection.

Defeated, depleted and demoralised, it seemed both the statistical and emotional low of Wenger's career. "You do not compare your pain," he said. "It is terribly painful. It is humiliating." His was a dignified response to an elegant annihilation of a team - and some would say annihilation of an entire ideology, though that would ignore the duff hand fate has dealt the Frenchman. "When you lose 8-2, it is better you don't talk too much because it hurts and it looks as though you are looking for excuses," he said, seeking few. He will not quit, and nor should he, but too many of his charges lack their manager's obstinacy and obduracy.

When put into practice properly, his ethos is a wondrous sight. With searing pace and incessant movement, with youthful verve and precocious assurance, with collective confidence and individual excellence, his principles were writ large at Old Trafford. Just not by his team. United were in stylish superiority, Arsenal their unwilling victims.

An afternoon of stunning statistics and barely credible football brought ten goals, a penalty save and a red card. Arsenal could count the cost of their absentees - with strange symmetry, while eight players were missing, eight goals were sieved - but it is scarcely an exaggeration to say eight could have been 18. Blameless on each occasion he was defeated, defiant when his defence was dreadful, Wojciech Szczesny was his side's finest player.

Ahead of him was a back four consisting of the untried, the unconvincing and the frankly unacceptable. Carl Jenkinson, Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Armand Traore were engaged in a private contest of incompetence. Any would have been a worthy winner.

If Highbury was the spiritual home of the offside trap during George Graham's days, the United attackers were rarely ensnared at Old Trafford. Three goals were at least partially attributable to Arsenal's inability to play offside; three, for Wayne Rooney's hat-trick, were set-pieces resulting from mistimed challenges. Traore's terrible header pre-empted the first of two terrific curlers by Ashley Young. Terrific as United were, this was death by a thousand cuts, all of them self-inflicted.

Ahead of the infamous four, a midfield went missing. With Francis Coquelin, a 20-year-old Premier League debutant, nominally patrolling the ground in front of the defence, runners went untracked, as Nani and Park Ji-Sung could testify when both scored within four minutes. Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin, predictably, offered negligible assistance. Even Neil Armstrong hasn't seen as much space as the United raiders were granted.

It still has to be exploited, something United did with relish. "We scored a fantastic selection of goals," Ferguson said. Danny Welbeck got the first, heading in after Anderson, as though mimicking a golfer in a bunker, managed a sand wedge of a chip over the defence that Welbeck headed in.

Young doubled the lead before the first of two beautifully precise free-kicks from Rooney. Following the second, Nani's deft chip and Park's low finish preceded a spot-kick from Rooney and a delightful second from Young.

For Arsenal, Robin van Persie had a first-half penalty saved and mustered a rather meaningless second-half goal. It was more telling that Theo Walcott, scorer of Arsenal's first goal, ended his afternoon at right-back, where he conceded the penalty Rooney converted to complete his hat-trick. His unexpected move into defence came after the hopeless, hapless Jenkinson had collected a second caution.

Then the anguish of defeat was compounded by the torment of Ferguson's pity. "Arsene has been a big adversary for me and will continue to be so when he gets his players back," the United manager said. "The criticism is unfair but we live in a terrible, cynical world now and when you lose a few games the jury is out. Of course I feel sympathy for him. He is a great football man. I think the job he has done for Arsenal over the years, by keeping his philosophy, has given the team some fantastic players."

Wenger's beliefs are an increasing issue. He may be considered the ultimate idealist, whereas Ferguson has always been a purist and a pragmatist rolled into one. This was a day when he could be the proponent of free-flowing, attacking football, casting aside his usual blueprint of packing the midfield against Arsenal in favour of storming at a second-string defence. His side showed their manager's ruthlessness; Wenger's illustrated his failings.

After the embarrassment comes the opportunity. A reluctant spender has three days to sign four players. He needs them.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney. His treble took him to 152 United goals, more than Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and suggested Sir Bobby Charlton's overall record may well be under threat. In the more immediate future, he and Edin Dzeko seem to be going head to head for the Golden Boot.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: De Gea's penalty save was his first meaningful contribution to the United cause and an indication of why Ferguson has so much faith in him. His supposed protectors, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, doubled up as playmakers, so fine was some of their passing. That Michael Carrick was not even on the bench bodes badly for him while Park, though a fixture in big games, faces a real task to displace Young. Javier Hernandez should be back in the team sooner as Welbeck has a hamstring injury.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Minus Jack Wilshere, there is a need for a personality in the midfield, while the loss of Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna was cruelly timed. Their absence highlighted the lack of authority the other defenders possess. Frequently out of position, Jenkinson seemed to think he was more wing-back than full-back and his dismissal was their third in as many games. Just above the relegation zone in the table, Arsenal must be propping up the Fair Play League.

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