Playing with the handbrake off and careering forwards at every opportunity Manchester United put Arsenal to the sword yesterday afternoon. Recalling the famous ‘98/99 season when thrashings were routinely meted out (8-1 against Forest, 6-2 against Leicester, 6-2 and 5-0 against Brondby), United demolished an abject Arsenal 8-2 for whom serious questions must now be asked. Still, if yesterday’s embarrassment persuades Arsene Wenger to finally sign the leaders that his squad is crying out for then it might yet prove a silver lining in a very dark cloud.
Arsenal were deprived of several first choice players due to injury, illness and suspension but United had a similar number of first choice names on the sidelines, only they were able to call upon a higher calibre of replacement. That fault rests with Wenger and his inability to conclude transfer business before the start of the season. Of course, it may just be his trademark unwillingness to sign players that don’t fit into his mould that causes the problem. Park Chu-Young is expected to arrive from Monaco and they have been linked with Yossi Benayoun but this hardly represents a cavalry charge to the rescue. The deficiencies yesterday lay blatantly in the defensive ability and heart of the team.
In contrast, it should be a badge of honour for Sir Alex Ferguson that his recruits are settling in so comfortably. Ashley Young gave Carl Jenkinson a torrid time, David De Gea expertly saved Van Persie’s penalty and Phil Jones commanded the defensive line with authority and class. Other youngsters like Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Anderson also impressed again, with the Brazilian again dominating the midfield area, only to be upstaged by the carnage taking place in front of him.
It is necessary to travel back in time to the ‘06/07 season and the Champions League slaughter of Roma to remember a United performance that matched yesterday in terms of attacking intensity and panache. Against Roma, as yesterday, shots rippled the net from all angles. For Young’s curling beauties of yesterday see Carrick’s long range missiles of yesteryear. That night against the Italians the attacking impetus was seized early on and never surrendered; almost symmetrically United gave Arsenal a fearful hiding from first whistle to last. The margins of victory were identical and the flair with which they were achieved of a striking resemblance.
Arsenal had no answer for the whirlwind speed at which United attacked and the myriad of attacking options they utilised. Through the centre with Welbeck and then Hernandez, out wide through Nani and Young; from deep with Evra and Smalling and from virtually everywhere through Rooney Arsenal found it impossible to cope with this plethora of firepower that United attacked with.
The pillaging of trophies domestic and abroad from 2007 to 2009 obscured the fact that United were no longer playing The United Way. In ‘07/08 home thrashings of Villa and Newcastle were the stand-out victories but neither contained the verve of yesterday’s fluid masterpiece, or even the second half against Tottenham last Monday night.
‘08/09 was another season of workmanlike wins; the sole breathtaking performance coming when a 2-0 deficit at half-time to Spurs quickly became a 5-2 victory thanks to the spectacular fusion of the fab four: Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov. While a formation to accommodate those four is almost impossible to behold, it is a regret that they were not allowed more opportunity to create the magic witnessed that early May evening.
So while the current vintage has a distance to travel before measuring up to those teams in terms of trophies, they are already setting a higher standard of attacking potency and fluidity.
As United author Daniel Harris noted to me during correspondence regarding the treble team: “when there was a hammering to be handed out, it got handed out.” Yesterday was a refreshing return to those days, with United throwing players forward even as the scoreline ticked upwards into the realms of fantasy. The days of settling for one and two goal victories are hopefully a thing of the part. Now is not a time to worry whether this brand of total football is possible against Barcelona or Real Madrid, but one in which to savour the mesmeric beauty of it.