LONDON: Seven clubs are covered by five points at the top of the Premier League after Manchester United inflicted Arsenal’s first away defeat since last March. The champions produced their finest display yet under new manager David Moyes to rebalance their season after defeats by Liverpool and Manchester City.
Intriguingly, City are not one of those seven clubs and United are now above them and into fifth place. Robin Van Persie scored the single goal which beat his old club but man of the match, without any shadow of doubt, was the all-action Wayne Rooney.
The shift in the balance of power between the two clubs was evidenced by the memory of events last May when Arsenal had to give newly-crowned champions Manchester United a guard of honour in North London.
That was a humiliation for Arsene Wenger’s men. But six months later Arsenal were flying high and, with Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Wenger was now the senior manager. Indeed, Moyes had previously only ever won three times against Arsenal in 25 games.
Arsenal also came to Old Trafford off the back of an impressive victory away to Borussia Dortmund in midweek though their recent history of mid-season collapses meant they were still a side under suspicion.
Not that history was on their side in this fixture. Last year they suffered the embarrassment of Andre Santos asking for Robin Van Persie’s shirt at half-time; the year before, they collapsed 8-2.
Seven years had passed since the Gunners last won at Old Trafford and their prospects of ending that bleak saga were harmed by the illness absence of Per Mertesacker who has been outstanding all season in central defence.
Neither side impressed in the opening exchanges, prompting Moyes to come down from the directors’ box to the technical area midway through the first half. Whether he ordered any change or not, within two minutes United were ahead.
Rooney won a corner on the left, took if himself and ex-Arsenal favourite Van Persie raced in at the near post to head home. Lacking Mertesacker, no Arsenal defender challenged Van Persie in the air: 27 minutes had gone.
Now it was Wenger’s turn to step out into the technical area in answer to the danger of Arsenal’s possible first defeat their last 15 away games (with 14 victories). The cumulative effect of United’s increasing pressure was evidenced by Bacay Sagna collecting the game’s first yellow card for a foul on fellow Frenchman Patrice Evra.
Arsenal were under pressure. Keeper Wojciech Szczesny was knocked down but not badly hurt in a collision with Phil Jones then Mathieu Flamini was booked for a loose tackle on the same United player.
After the interval it was United, instead, who were forced into a change after injury to skipper Nemanja Vidic just before the break. United’s reshuffle, with Tom Cleverly coming into midfield and Jones dropping back into defence, may have contributed to an untidy start to the second half
The game hung in the balance with high-tempo, aggressive play from both teams. United might have extended their lead when Rooney drove just wide after a clever lay-off by Van Persie
Shinji Kagawa was continuing to make the most of his delayed chance to prove his value to United. He cut in regularly from the left, working tirelessly to shut down Arsenal’s counter-attacking opportunities.
Wenger, trying to raise his own team’s workrate, brought Jack Wilshere into the game but the longer the game continued the harder, remarkably, Rooney appeared to work. It is as if the England striker wants not only to prove something to his present manager but is driven to prove something to his old manager.
Ferguson was watching from the directors’ box, near England manager Roy Hodgson. Both could not fail to be impressed – and delighted – by this ‘new’ Rooney.
In the Arsenal midfield, by contrast, Mesut Ozil was comparatively ineffective, prompting a doubt over whether he – like the absent Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky – was a victim to the flu infection affecting the Gunners.
Kagawa, having worked himself almost to a standstill, was replaced by Ryan Giggs while Arsenal threw on Nicklas Bendner in place of Santi Cazorla. That mean the rare site of Arsenal playing with two full-time strikers on the pitch. Olivier Giroud certainly needed some sort of help after a lonely afternoon up front.
Serge Gnabry was their last substitute in place of the unwell Mikel Arteta with nine minutes remaining. He almost set up the equaliser with a square cross into the penalty box but Giroud could not quite control the pace of the ball and United scrambled it clear to secure the three points.