Oliver Holt's big match verdict: Fergie almost looked sorry for humiliating his old foe
Re-births have been celebrated with happy and heady regularity in the 25 years since Sir Alex Ferguson took over at Manchester United.
But amid the euphoria that accompanied the latest rampage of gilded youth at Old Trafford yesterday, an element of sorrow intruded, too.
Because some of the 75,000 spectators felt as if they had stumbled upon a funeral at the heart of the carnival.
This was an iconic and unforgettable scoreline, 8-2 as memorable for those who saw it as for the spectators who gazed in awe at England’s 1-517 writ large on the scoreboard at the Gabba during the Ashes last year.
Even Ferguson and Gary Neville felt there was something sombre about it. As they watched Arsenal disintegrate, it was as if they were mourning the death of a philosophy and the loss of a cherished rivalry.
Ferguson seemed to suggest after the match he was glad United hadn’t won by more because he felt awkward at the demise of a once great club. And Neville seemed more dismayed than delighted when he said United’s performance might only have merited a 2-0 win over many Premier League sides.
Arsenal took over as United’s most bitter foes when Liverpool slipped into decline and Arsene Wenger took over at Highbury 15 years ago.
There was something to admire about them, something more than just spending and acquiring. They stood for something. They stood for a style of football and Ferguson and United respected that.
But as Arsenal were swept aside with embarrassing ease, and as Wenger sat with his head in his hands, it felt as if that era had passed.
Arsenal aren’t part of the big picture any more. Earlier in the afternoon, Manchester City had demolished Spurs at White Hart Lane to underline their threat to United’s crown. For the first time since the late 60s, they are the enemy again.
And Arsenal? Well, they lost their two best players, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, within the space of 10 days this month and have, as yet, made no effort to replace them.
Whether that is because they can’t or won’t is a moot point that centres around the personality and the ideals of Wenger.
It has seemed for several years now as though trophies at Arsenal have been sacrificed for the purity of the pursuit of a principle.
It has been tolerated because faith in youth is seen as a noble cause and it suited Arsenal’s financial pragmatism but yesterday’s result will surely force a shift in attitude.
What is not in doubt is that the club is in stasis, mired in a state of near-paralysis and self-doubt and marooned near the foot of the infant table. They will not stay there, of course, but their 8-2 defeat was merely a particularly brutal confirmation that the summit of their ambition this season will be making the top four.
Sure, they were hugely depleted yesterday, weakened by injuries and suspensions, but it was the manner of their capitulation that suggested they should not expect any swift return to the Premier League’s top table.
They were called many things in the aftermath of this football massacre and ‘naive’ and ‘lacking in spirit’ were two of the more gentle charges laid against them.
It would be just as fair to say that they were spineless, directionless and clueless. It is also worth pointing out that at least six of the side who started yesterday’s match are first choice players.
Much of the blame for their defeat was immediately directed at Wenger. Celebrity fans like Piers Morgan and Ian Poulter took to Twitter, berating the man who for so long has been regarded as the father of the club for his failings.
Many, predictably, called for him to quit, seizing on yesterday’s result as proof that Wenger’s experiment with youth had run its course and that now was the time for a change.
When Wenger walked into the post-match press conference, he said that he would not resign and it is doubtful that the Arsenal board has any appetite to fire him.
This is his club and these are his players and replacing him would spark a more traumatic upheaval than that which will follow even the retirement of Ferguson.
When asked whether he was confident he could turn the club’s fortunes around, Wenger responded archly. “What is to turn around?” he said.
Well, there is plenty. More than will be solved by the return even of fine players like Jack Wilshere, Thomas Vermaelen and Gervinho.
Wenger should have anticipated the departures of Fabregas and Nasri and recruited reinforcements, but he didn’t.
That was one of the reasons Arsenal looked so utterly out of their depth yesterday. But it has also been evident for some time that he needs to leaven his youth policy with experienced players who, as Neville put it, ‘have been around the block’.
When those criticisms were put to him, Wenger dodged them. He said a team of 20 people at the club were working on transfers and had not found anyone.
Even for devout Wenger fans, that is not good enough. United, Liverpool and Chelsea have refreshed their ranks. Arsenal have stagnated.
Last Wednesday, it seemed victory over Udinese would be more significant than any reverse Arsenal might suffer here. That was wrong. This result shook the club to its foundations and confirmed its fall from power.
Wenger is still the best man for the job but the time for fiddling while his club burns has passed. He must act and act quickly.