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Same old story of if-onlys as Gunners hit 30-year low


Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring Manchester United's second goal against Arsenal. Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images

In anticipation of what was to come, an Arsenal fan proudly displayed a 'Wenger Out' banner before kick-off at the Emirates last night.

For a while, it seemed premature as Arsenal started the game brightly, but they are good at that kind of thing these days. They are good at delivering moments of promise, good at creating football's equivalent of shiny trinkets that glitter but turn out to have no real value. They are good at nurturing hard luck tales and good at if-onlys.

If Arsenal had taken advantage of their first-half dominance the story would have been different. The problem for Arsene Wenger is that the story is always the same, especially against the big sides. "We have to keep faith in what we do," he said afterwards, although it is becoming harder for many Arsenal fans to do that after their worst league start in more than 30 years.

Arsenal play with the neurotic's fear that it could all go wrong at any moment. Last night they lost to a Manchester United side which previously had failed to win away this season.

It was a surprise that Louis Van Gaal's side managed it last night because they were a chaotic mess for the first half, saved by the excellence of their goalkeeper David de Gea and a characteristically apprehensive Arsenal performance in front of goal.

Danny Welbeck played well but kept missing chances, a typical Welbeck performance when Arsenal needed something more than typical.

"We gave the ball away so much it is not possible for a top team," Louis Van Gaal said of United's performance in the first 30 minutes.

They were playing the right opponents. Arsenal are Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross and they keep being humiliated by Alec Baldwin.

United were not the alpha male, they weren't Chelsea and that was the most embarrassing thing. When Kieran Gibbs deflected an Antonio Valencia shot into the Arsenal goal, United had the lead without having a shot on target. When Wayne Rooney gave United a second, it was the signal for the mutinous to rise up. Olivier Giroud scored Arsenal's goal and celebrated as if it was significant but this was garbage time, even if Arsenal are always playing a version of garbage time.

The build-up to the game included many nostalgic articles recalling the days when the two sides dominated English football with an abrasive, confrontational approach that peaked when they played each other.

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This was the first time since the start of the 1998/99 season that Arsenal met United with both clubs outside the top four. United returned to it with this win but the resemblance to the teams from that era is cosmetic. At times last night they looked like two XIs wearing the colours of Arsenal and Manchester United but made up of C-list celebrities, including a couple who claimed to have had trials with Crystal Palace.

By the end, Jack Wilshere - who missed Arsenal's best chance - was gone after a heavy tackle from Paddy McNair ended his game, while Wojciech Szczesny had been injured colliding with Gibbs in the build-up to United's first goal.

United ended the day hoping that this was a turning point, while Wenger insisted there had been positives. Yet the game was gripping in part because neither side appeared to have much conviction in what it was doing. It was no surprise that a first half of almost complete Arsenal supremacy ended with Wenger blowing with relief when Chris Smalling messed up a chance from close-range after a worrying sequence of United corners.

By then, Arsenal should have been down to ten men after Wilshere had shoved his head in the direction of Marouane Fellaini's jaw but was probably spared through his lack of height which meant he could only butt his chest.

Wilshere had wasted Arsenal's best chance which dented them but also illustrated how brittle Manchester United were.

Van Gaal had returned to a back three for the first time since the scoreless draw at Burnley, clearly deciding that, whatever about the glory years when the two sides ruled the world, the famous shut-out at Turf Moor was something his side should aspire to once again,

They managed to keep a clean sheet until injury-time but it was hard to understand how as the young backline of McNair, Smalling and Tyler Blackett struggled.

In fact, their survival could only be understood through Arsenal's defects even as they exposed United's. The back three was an anarchic mess with Michael Carrick in front of them, outstanding only in his anonymity, even if there was competition for that prize.

It took 18 minutes for the crowd to get a chance to boo Robin Van Persie and, apart from taking corners, his involvement was minimal after that and he was replaced by James Wilson 15 minutes from the end.

When Luke Shaw went off in the first half, it was the 40th injury to a United player since Van Gaal's arrival but he had been so unimpressive that it might not have been a worry. Fellaini and Angel Di Maria were, in different ways, United's best outfield players even if Di Maria missed a simple chance at the very end.

"If Arsenal had scored in the first 20 minutes, it would have been a different game," Van Gaal admitted."But now I can laugh."

Wenger will find it harder to play it for laughs with Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates on Wednesday. "It is a game that we dominated. We were not efficient enough in the final third. Their keeper was man of the match, that tells the story of the game," he said later.

It tells a story of the game but it doesn't tell the whole story.

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