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

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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.

Agent: “There’s no hatred” between Bale, Ronaldo

Gareth Bale & Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid CF
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Gareth Bale doesn’t at all dislike Cristiano Ronaldo — or vice versa — despite what may seem a lukewarm on-field relationship between the two Real Madrid superstars, insists Jonathan Barnett, agent of Bale.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Instead, Barnett insists that the two men with very different personalities have a healthy relationship, and competition, that pushes each Galactico to be the best player he can be.

Barnett, on Bale’s relationship with Ronaldo — quotes from the Guardian:

“They don’t go out eating every night together, but it’s fine. There’s no hatred there. Gareth is a quiet guy. They’re complete opposites. But I think Gareth can learn a little bit from Ronaldo as well, interacting maybe a little bit. But he wants his own life and he lives it. Gareth is a great footballer, he doesn’t want anything more. He has some very good endorsements but his whole life is to be the best footballer in the world. I don’t think he wants to be the best model in the world or the best underwear seller. That’s not him.”

That’s a hilarious closing quote from Barnett, but he knows exactly how some folks are going to interpret it: “Bale thinks Ronaldo loves himself too much.”

[ MORE: Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott ]

There’s nothing better for the ultimate success of a team than healthy, friendly competition between teammates who are spectacularly talented as Ronaldo and Bale. The former will only be around to perform at his current level for so much longer, but at what point does the latter officially take the torch and supplant Madrid’s biggest star, and how accepting will he be of passing that proverbial torch?

Olivier Giroud: “I must harden myself” to unseat Walcott

Olivier Giroud, France
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Is it just me, or does the press really only ever get noteworthy quotes from players during international breaks?

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I suppose it’s not surprising, given Premier League players get away from the mean ole British press, go back to their respective homelands and speak with journalists they’ve likely known since their early playing days, thus feel more comfortable opening up about key issues.

Anyway, today we have Olivier Giroud essentially calling himself out for having lost the starting striker’s job at Arsenal because he’s been outplayed of late by Theo Walcott. As discussed before, this is bad news for Giroud because he’s now falling down the depth chart for France with next summer’s European Championship on the horizon.

[ MORE: Aguero admits he wants Guardiola link-up ]

Giroud, on losing his place at Arsenal — quotes from the Guardian:

“At Arsenal, I am in competition with Theo for the striker position. But he is doing well at the moment, so there is no reason to change.

“Whether it was at Tours, Montpellier or Arsenal, I have never experienced a situation like this, I have often played from the start. I need to take positives and to harden myself mentally. It is something new for me.

“I was in [Walcott’s] place in previous seasons at Arsenal. I imagine what he must have been thinking. But I feel that the coach believes in me.”

Giroud goes on to cast into doubt his own confidence, stating in very certain terms he needs “to believe more in [his] abilities.” Giroud’s always come across as a bit of an existentialist, but it’s always strange to hear players publicly call themselves out — particularly their confidence — as if that’s not going to increase the pressure currently weighing down on them.

[ MORE: Rodgers reportedly chosen to take over at Aston Villa ]

The next eight months are going to be monumentally important in Giroud’s career, as the 29-year-old attempts to prove he’s worth keeping around at Arsenal and deserving of a place in the national team squad for next summer’s EUROs, which are to be played in France.