On a day when no one played their best, Man United comes out on top
United had multiple chances to score goals but still came away with a 2-1 victory
Arsenal, along with other top-five teams, appeared to give half-hearted efforts
The continuing accusations of racism against referees is becoming problematic
Five thoughts off English Premier League action Saturday.
1. Looking like champions. After the game at Old Trafford, Manchester United players and coaches paraded before the cameras to declare how disappointed they were in their performance.
You might have thought United had lost. No, it had beaten a bitter adversary, Arsenal, 2-1, to move to the top of the table for the first time this season. After a Saturday when none of the other top-seven teams won, and none of the main contenders showed the slightest spark of quality, United deserves to be in first place. It was the only one that looked capable of winning the league.
After Robin van Persie pounced on an ugly error by Thomas Vermaelen after two minutes to smash the inevitable goal against his ex-club, United dominated. Its defense was hardly threatened. In midfield, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley stifled their opponents and constructed moves with the pleasing rhythm that has been United's hallmark for so long. Yet close to goal, United was astonishingly wasteful. Wayne Rooney fired a penalty kick wide. Van Persie and Antonio Valencia both miss-kicked with just the goalie to beat. Van Persie also squandered a couple, of other good chances.
"A game we should have won by four or five,'' Alex Ferguson, the United manager told the BBC. "If you read the score line you might think it was a close game. It wasn't a close game."
"We were too lackadaisical."
All that is true, but while others were stumbling, United won.
2. A gentler massacre. Last year, Arsenal was humiliated, 8-2, at Old Trafford, so a 2-1 defeat may look like an improvement. In truth, the Gunners had nothing to offer and could have ended upon the wrong side of another huge score if United's strikers had shown a little more focus.
Arsenal did not manage a shot on goal until added time. It only scored with the very last kick of the match after the United defense allowed Santi Cazorla three swings at the ball.
It was mere consolation. Arsenal offered no threat to United.
"It was nothing like Manchester United-Arsenal games of the past," Ferguson said.
Arsčne Wenger, the Arsenal manager, did what he always does after losing to United: he blamed the referee. Like his team, he was going through the motions.
Wenger complained that United should not have had a penalty. He also said that Jack Wilshere should not have been sent off. He was wrong on both counts. In any case, neither decision affected the result.
Cazorla did handle the ball. It was a penalty. It didn't matter. Rooney shot wide. Wilshere had been a walking red card from the moment he angrily whacked Cleverley in the 14th minute. In the second half, Mike Dean warned both Cleverley and Wilshere after fouls. Ferguson removed Cleverley. Wenger left Wilshere on. Both the player and the manager should have known Wilshere's next foul would be his last. By the time it came, in the 69th minute, Arsenal was two down, dead and awaiting burial.
Wenger really can't complain. Maybe he's trying to distract attention from just how limp and lifeless his team has looked in the league recently.
3. Weekend hangover. Arsenal showed nothing on Saturday, but the same could be said of three other teams who started the day in the top five: Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham.
Injuries are beginning to take a toll. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all have an eye on Champions League games in the week ahead. That might have explained the strange teams Chelsea and City put out. There was also the hangover, for Arsenal and Chelsea, of wild extra-time victories in the League Cup in midweek and maybe from the bomb Chelsea let off when it accused referee Mark Clattenburg of racism after losing to United last week.
City started with three central strikers, Carlos Tévez, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, trying to avoid stepping on each other's toes. Often it doesn't matter whom Roberto Mancini starts, he will throw on more talent from the bench in the second half and City will score the winner in the last 10 minutes. On Saturday, the longer the game went on, the more comfortable West Ham looked as it played out the 0-0 draw.
Chelsea was insipid at Swansea. It took the lead in the only way that had seemed possible, from a corner. Gary Cahill won the header, Victor Moses flicked it deftly on. The Blues led. They didn't deserve to. On this occasion, justice was done when Pablo Hernández leveled with two minutes to go. Swansea then had the chance to win. Chelsea should be happy with a 1-1 draw. It was not the performance of a potential champion.
4. Post protection. There is a reason coaches are wary of putting men on the goal posts at corners. It means the defending team has two players marking inanimate objects and only eight outfield players trying to stop opponents. On the other hand the attacking team has a man taking the corner, and will, almost always, keep one extra defender back to guard against a counter-attack. So that makes it, at worst, eight against eight for the defenders. Even so, some managers don't like those odds and prefer to gamble with leaving posts unguarded.
Tottenham paid the price against Wigan on Saturday. When Brad Friedel, the Tottenham goalie, opted to punch a corner limply outward rather than flip it over the bar after 56 minutes, the ball fell to Ben Watson. With no one on the line, he had half the goal to aim at and whacked the ball just inside the unguarded post.
Eight minutes later, Steve Caulker of Tottenham leapt to reach a corner and looped a header over Ali Al Habsi, the Wigan goalie, and toward the far corner of the net. But Watson was waiting on the line and cleared the ball. Wigan won, 1-0, because it guarded its posts at corners and Spurs didn't.
5. Watching the referees. Karl Marx said that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. When Chelsea last week launched the second act of its yearlong racist words drama, the process was reversed.
The John Terry case, with all its delays and recriminations, often seemed like a bumbling British comedy: "Carry On England Captain".
When Chelsea turned the same weapon on the Football Association and accused one of its referees, Mark Clattenburg, of using racist terms against two players, it carried the whole business to a much more dangerous level.
It is difficult to overstate the enormity of the accusation against Clattenburg, the damage it will do to the English soccer authorities if he is guilty or the seriousness of the ramifications for Chelsea if he is innocent.
Chelsea has since dropped the suggestion that Clattenburg insulted Mata, since, it seems, no one (including Mata) actually heard the phrase. The club is sticking by its assertion that the referee used a racist insult ("monkey" is the word the British tabloids are quoting) to John Obi Mikel.
If Clattenburg did say something so unbelievably stupid and so deeply offensive, that will, rightly mean the end of his refereeing career. It will also leave the FA with a lot of egg on its face. That is, of course, part of the objective for Chelsea, which feels somehow wronged that the FA suspended Terry for a racist insult even though a court had already refused to convict him. It's the timing and location of Clattenburg's alleged outburst, at Chelsea immediately after the Terry case that makes the whole business seem so surreal.
Chelsea was also upping the stakes in the game of bullying referees. Ferguson and Wenger have been enthusiastic participants since the 1990s, but José Mourinho took intimidation to a nastier level when he arrived at Stamford Bridge. It is a game based on the premise that referees can be influenced to bend matches to the team, or manager, that scares them most. Having your career ended for allowing a marginally offside winning goal, which is what Clattenburg did, is pretty scary. It was a decision that crowned a weekend of game-changing errors by referees, notably at Arsenal and Everton.
This weekend, despite Wenger's knee-jerk indignation at Old Trafford, was tame by comparison. The only vaguely problematic decision involving a top-five team was a strike by Kevin Nolan of West Ham against Manchester City that was disallowed for offside when he was probably level. The Hammers hardly bothered to protest. It was if the players and referees were observing a kind of terrified truce as they wait to see where the Clattenburg case will leave referees.