Manchester United 2 Arsenal 0

From today’s Sunday Times [UK]. How nice to see the youngsters of Manchester beat the unconvincing Arsenal team.

December 08, 2002

Hugh McIlvanney: Bitter Wenger loses the Old Trafford plot

Sir Alex Ferguson will have enjoyed the sight of Arsenal’s manager reacting in such an irrational fashion to this defeat

NOTHING about yesterday’s momentous victory is likely to please Manchester United more than the sourly irrational reaction of Arsène Wenger. According to the Arsenal manager’s comments at the end of the enthralling hour and a half, the league leaders were beaten by opponents who took an undeserved lead through an illegal goal and then concentrated almost exclusively on stubborn defence. It was, to say the least, an idiosyncratic interpretation.

In fact, Wenger’s view of events was too eccentric to be explained by the bias that is the prerogative of anybody in his position. There had to be a suspicion that his usual intelligent urbanity had been marginalised by angry disappointment over the 2-0 defeat. He sounded like a man who had been rattled.

The jolting effect the result had on him may have had less to do with the intensification of pressure at the top of the Premiership than with the identity of those inflicting the setback. United and Sir Alex Ferguson obviously rank among the adversaries to whom Wenger least enjoys yielding and after the home-and-away double his men achieved in the league last season this scoreline was bound to hurt.

Yet the extent to which Wenger re-wrote the narrative of the game was remarkable. He may have been justified in suggesting that the first goal was a turning-point, though it was struck by Juan Sebastian Veron as early as the 22nd minute, and he had undeniable grounds for complaining about how Ruud van Nistelrooy helped to control the ball in the build-up by employing his right arm. But the criticism of United’s performance that Wenger constructed on his resentment of that goal was a strangely extravagant edifice. Amid sarcastic musings about whether footballers should be allowed to indulge in a little basketball, he said bluntly of the opposition: “I can’t say I was impressed by their offensive game today. They defended well. After they got the first goal — and there was a definite handball — they could afford to concentrate on defending and that made things easier for them.”

He did acknowledge that United were “more aggressive and more committed than we were at important moments of the game” and that they “won more 50-50s”. Still, the tone of disparagement that ran through every mention he made of United’s approach was particularly noticeable when he argued that the Old Trafford crowd had been showing signs of turning on their favourites just before Veron scored. The idea that such an abandonment of traditional loyalties would have occurred so soon in such a crucial confrontation was bizarre in the extreme. And the peculiar thinking from Wenger was sustained when he hinted that the crowd’s support for the home side’s defensive activities had been vital during the rest of the match. The Highbury manager’s summing up was equally grudging in relation to the winners: “I think we got a good warning about how much teams want to beat us.”

The warnings the day held for him had rather wider implications. This was Arsenal’s fourth loss in their last eight Premiership engagements and that is not a statistic that sits comfortably with the quality of talent that overflows in their squad. Facing Ferguson in the throes of what he considered the worst injury crisis he has ever had to endure in nearly three decades as a manager, Wenger’s reigning champions should have been favourites to succeed even on hostile terrain. But Arsenal’s assumed superiority lasted only as long as the comparison was confined to lists of names on the programme.

They had most of the individuals with heavyweight reputations and such as Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp (a late substitute) should have been encouraged by not having to line up against the likes of Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Nicky Butt. However, the discrepancy in reputations did not mean much once the team sheets had materialised into flesh and blood entities. For United, the stoutness of the hearts pumping the blood became decisive.

Since the ignominious defeat by Manchester City on November 9, the cold fury of Ferguson’s response and the implacability of the demands communicated to the players have stirred an extraordinary response. The depth of combative spirit generated was conveyed yesterday by the fact that Veron was as ferociously competitive and influential as anybody on the pitch and that his fellow midfielder in red, Phil Neville, performed with such tireless appetite and effective zeal that he was named man of the match.

Though few would begrudge Neville the accolade, many felt that other candidates had claims at least as convincing: Paul Scholes, scorer of a memorable second goal; practically everyone in the splendidly resistant back line; Veron for having perhaps his best 90 minutes in the colours; and Van Nistelrooy, who led the attack boldly and skilfully and easily emerged ahead in any measurement of impact involving himself and Henry.

How could all this excellence manifest itself amid the negativity recognised by Wenger? The answer is that it couldn’t. The United obsession with defence existed only in the Frenchman’s imagination. The truth is that the core of Ferguson’s policy was to attack Arsenal high up the pitch, to challenge them everywhere and deny them the luxury of settling into their rhythm. Of course United defended wholeheartedly, and often brilliantly, when required. But they did not resort to a containment strategy after taking the lead and indeed when they scored their second with 17 minutes left they were so committed to aggression that Scholes continued to operate almost as an auxiliary centre-forward.

The essence of this occasion was that Arsenal were outfought. But they were also outplayed.