Same old, same old

Image: Wenger: Familiar shortcomings

Monday night's game at Old Trafford bodes well for Man United but for Arsenal it's same old, same old.

Alex Dunn was at Old Trafford to see a game that reinforced a view that Arsenal are incapable of changing tack when the circumstances dictate it, while United are kicking into gear at just the right time

Sir Alex Ferguson would hardly have welcomed Patrice Evra's decision to cast himself as agent provocateur prior to last night's tête-à-tête with Arsenal but having out thought his old sparring partner Arsene Wenger so comprehensively he might just afford himself a chuckle on a morning in which he awoke to find his side top of the table with a game in hand. United's left-back has a history of dropping verbal bombs, he offered to replay France's World Cup play-off with Republic of Ireland after Thierry Henry's infamous handball on his PlayStation, and it would seem his assertion that Arsenal are little more than a 'training centre' rankled both Wenger and his players more than they'd care to concede. While publically no Emirates regular would back the words of one of the old enemy the Frenchman is hardly a solitary voice in proffering his view Arsenal are in danger of becoming a luxury Crewe, with Wenger's mantra of principles over pots not dissimilar to Dario Gradi's at Gresty Road. Travelling to Old Trafford in the knowledge they had won there only twice in their past 11 visits an inferiority complex would have been understandable, with each robust early challenge forcing sub-editors across the country to seriously ponder for the first time in years whether a 'Men versus Boys' headline could justifiably be regurgitated yet again. It would be an exaggeration to suggest Arsenal's tackling in the opening 20 minutes was spiteful but there was an edge to it that had Howard Webb been in a more pernickety mood might have seen his notebook filled sooner. Arsenal have now earned 21 yellow cards in their last four Premier League visits to Old Trafford so if nothing else their 'southern softies' moniker is looking tired. In the end though, with the embers of Arsenal's early fire soon extinguished on a cold night in Manchester, it was a case of same-old, same-old. Wenger claimed at full-time somewhat pompously 'on both sides you have seen technical mistakes because the pitch is not good enough to play good football', which came across more as a further indictment of his side's inability to change tack as circumstances dictate than a valid excuse for defeat. Despite the Old Trafford groundsmen's inability to provide silk grass the surface was hardly unplayable. Wenger is quick to criticise those sides that play 'anti-football' and patronise practitioners of a direct style but while their fans enjoyed chanting 'hoof' every time Edwin van der Sar went from back to front to find Wayne Rooney from his hands, Arsenal are in danger of becoming similarly one dimensional. Wenger's style of football is as aesthetically pleasing as Sam Allardyce's is ugly, but in terms of delivering silverware it's proved no more successful in the past few years. Arsenal's technicians are too cute for middling outfits that content themselves to sit, soak and rely on the counter-attack to offer a threat of their own but against the top sides that have players of a similar calibre, Wenger's reluctance to make changes either tactically or stylistically is frequently exposed as being foolhardy. United have been accused of being overly negative for employing Michael Carrick as a shield in front of the back four but while on an individual level he was at times guilty of profligacy in possession, his discipline allowed the improving Anderson and Darren Fletcher licence to play yard dogs in snapping into their opponents further up the field. Anderson has only ever hinted at his potential since joining United from Porto - it's often forgotten he is in fact Ferguson's fifth most expensive signing ever - but in the past month he has started to play with a consistency that has previously eluded him. It was the Brazilian, 22, that caught the eye over Arsenal's own wonderkids Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri, with his ability to pickpocket opponent's passes a frequent frustration for the away side. If he can add a shot to match his engine to drive forward and cover ground remarkably quickly, United might just have a complete midfielder on their hands. Ferguson has made no secret of his admiration for Arsenal's midfield and his strength, others deem it as a negative, is that he's not too proud to change his own side's make-up accordingly. This current United team is not the buccaneering one of yesteryear and as such while some fans reared on a tradition of 'attack, attack, attack!', struggle to comprehend Ferguson's insistence of employing a solitary front man for the 'big' games, Berbatov must have thought he'd been caught drowning a bag of black cats after being dropped after a five-goal salvo, the proof invariably is in the pudding and three points suggest the Scot got his tactics spot on. Arsenal dominated possession in spells but quickly ran out of ideas to break down United's staunchly disciplined game plan. Happy to allow Arsenal to dictate in areas of the field where they couldn't be hurt, United's collective ability not to be lured out of position meant Arsenal flirted with the idea of getting in all night but ultimately left Manchester without so much as a snog on the doorstep. Much has been made of United's mediocrity this season despite remaining unbeaten in the league and, other than the demolition of Blackburn, it's not an unjust criticism. That they sit at the summit is primarily due to a settled backline rather than expansive attack. It's also a pretty ominous sign for their rivals as they look to click into gear over the festive period. Rio Ferdinand's immaculate return following a serious injury has laid to bed claims he was finished as a top class centre-half and again on Monday, other than for a rash challenge on Bacary Sagna that should have brought him a booking, he barely put a foot wrong all evening. A Rolls Royce of a defender to Nemanja Vidic's Monster Truck the pair are an almost perfect partnership of poise and power, with Ferdinand's last foul prior to last night's game coming on April 11 2010 against Blackburn, a remarkable 246 days ago. Compare their compatibility to that of Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, along with a criminal lack of a reliable goalkeeper, and it's not to hard to comprehend why Arsenal are seen as having fast feet but a glass chin. An ill-tempered Wenger turned on the press after the game and snapped when asked to pinpoint Arsenal's frailties in repeatedly coming up short in the big games. "Why do we always seem to lose these big games? If you are a football specialist I leave this analysis to you. Why do you ask me, because you know everything?" Given Arsenal are still very much in the title hunt and a defeat at Old Trafford is hardly the catalyst for a roots and branch investigation into where it's all gone wrong, Wenger is right in his assessment now is not the time for panic. His ire at the press though cannot mask a shortcoming in his side's DNA that he is too intelligent not to realise ultimately stops at his door. His side have now drawn one and lost 10 of their last 11 fixtures against the Premier League's big two. If Wenger can't figure out a way to improve on this statistic Arsenal will forever remain the prettiest bridesmaid who never quite makes it down the aisle herself. Have your say on Monday night's game at Old Trafford by filling in the feedback form below...

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