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Offshore drilling, England: at Manchester United 2, Arsenal 1

Nov 3, 2012, 11:45 AM EDT

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Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford has become one of the most anticipated matches of the Premier League season, but by the end of today’s game in Manchester, onlookers could be forgiven for silently begging for referee Mike Dean’s whistle to put them out of their numbed misery. Thanks to an early goal from Robin van Persie and an uninspired Arsenal (that failed to register a shot for 92 minutes), Manchester United walked to a 2-1 win over their muted rivals, temporarily going top of the Premier League.

Though the final score hints the match was close, Santi Cazorla’s shutout-defying 94th minute score only obscured the huge gap between the teams. Manchester United kept Arsenal at arm’s length all day, their passive defending offering no easy answers for a Gunners side unwilling to work their way back into the title race.

In a performance that should provoke Arsenal’s annual identity crisis, Manchester United made another claim to being the Premier League’s best team, even if they’ll likely sit second by day’s end.

Man of the Match: In his first game against his former club, Robin van Persie declined to celebrate his third minute goal, a sign of respect for a team that helped build his star. But that star burned Arsenal on Saturday, taking advantage of a third minute Thomas Vermaelen error with a pinpoint finish far post past Vito Mannone, giving United a lead they’d never relinquish.

Having already scored eight goals this season, the former Arsenal captain looks set to challenge’s last year’s 30-goal plateau. At least, we thought is was a plateau.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Manchester United’s got something figured out, for now.

So it seems Alex Ferguson’s settled on a first choice XI, starting the same team today that he used to derail Chelsea last Sunday. Ashley Young, a surprise starter at Stamford Bridge, looks to have claimed a spot on the left of midfield, with Antonio Valencia the man on the right. Combined with van Persie and Wayne Rooney, the lineup gives United the fastest team in the league, one that’s among the world’s most potent in transition, even if the team’s likely to change once Shinji Kagawa returns.

Arsenal answered any lingering questions.

The Gunners looked so strong at the beginning of the season. They weren’t scoring as often as we’re used to, but an attack orchestrated by Cazorla and a surprisingly stingy defense hinted Arsenal was close to contending.

Not so. Arsenal is as far behind Chelsea and the Manchesters as they’ve ever been in the Arsene Wenger-era, and unfortunately (if predictably), the problem appears to be mental. There’s no reason Wenger’s personnel can’t compete with the league’s big three, but there’s little in their approach that suggests Arsenal see themselves on the same level as the title contenders.

United still a thing of beauty with the ball.

For Arsenal, it was a low number. Fifty-two. That was the percentage of possession they held on Saturday, a remarkably small fraction considering Manchester United’s tactics. As they did on Sunday, the Red Devils remained content to lay off their opposition until they made a move toward the attacking third. Then, United would start to work, and while their counterattack was not as authoritative Saturday as it was against at Stamford Bridge, their style combined a level of precision and decisiveness that’s otherwise unseen in the Premier League. While Chelsea is capable of playing some entrancing soccer, Manchester United may employ the most attractive style in England.

Packaged for takeaway

  • The scoreline would have been worse had Wayne Rooney converted his late first half spot kick. Instead, he nailed the left post. Van Persie should get the honors going forward.
  • Jack Wilshere, in his second game back after over 500 days out, saw red after an ill-timed lunge at Patrice Evra drew a second booking.
  • Evra, who came into the year two goals in six-and-a-half Premier League seasons, scored his second goal of the campaign, heading home the match-winner after he was left unmarked on a 67th minute cross from Rooney.
  • Central midfield is not going to be a strength for United, but Michael Carrick’s bounce back from last year’s disappointing season has made a big difference. Whether he’s partnered by Tom Cleverley (as he as today), Shinji Kagawa, or perhaps eventually Darren Fletcher, a return to form from Carrick will help augment United’s greatest weakness.
  • For a team that came into the game with the league’s best defense, Arsenal’s center halves were surprisingly poor, particularly Thomas Vermaelen.
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