All the old Arsenal failings have returned as they were flattered by a 2-1 reverse to a vastly superior Manchester United
Robin van Persie had his hands in the air but his fingers were spread and his head was down. The ball was in Vito Mannone's net and the man who had just put it there was asking for forgiveness from the Arsenal fans who had serenaded him with their new repertoire of songs.
What a charming collection it was, too. Van Persie was a "Dutch Jimmy Savile". Other songs followed about the time, in 2005, he was arrested in the Netherlands after a false accusation of rape. Arsène Wenger's request for supporters to applaud their former player always felt like wishful thinking but when the vilification goes to such lengths it does tend to undermine all those complaints, going back many years, about the chants Arsenal's manager has endured himself at Old Trafford.
Van Persie, one imagines, will console himself with the knowledge that there was nothing from Arsenal to engender even a flicker of regret about no longer being on their payroll. Here, instead, was the hard evidence about why he wanted to leave the club in the first place. Arsenal were a mess in their 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. Not, admittedly, as bad as the corresponding fixture last season, when Manchester United scored eight and subjected them to their most harrowing result of the Wenger era. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson's team could easily have had half that amount, or more. Two-one felt like a deception, a trick of the mind bearing in the mind the way the game had gone. "You look at the score and it looks like a close game," Ferguson said. "It wasn't a close game." His expression made it clear he had made the point, with a different choice of words, in the dressing room.
Arsenal had been indebted to the generosity of their hosts' finishing. Perhaps more worryingly, there was an odd vibe to this match that told another story about where they stand these days. Arsenal's trips to Old Trafford used to be great occasions. This was nothing of the sort. It felt like a routine match, just another run-of-the-mill victory rather than a match-up between two fierce old rivals, Wenger-Ferguson, Vieira-Keane and all that.
"A strange game," Ferguson reflected. "Nothing like Manchester United and Arsenal games of the past." The atmosphere was flat. Arsenal were rarely in it and, before the end, their supporters had grown bored of abusing Van Persie and turned on their chief executive Ivan Gazidis. "We want our Arsenal back" was the general tone.
How premature it now feels that earlier in the season Arsenal were being commended for a new sense of order in defence and the appointment of Steve Bould was being hailed for re-establishing them as a genuine threat.
Instead, all the old failings have gradually returned. André Santos's apparent ambition to be regarded as the least distinguished Brazilian footballer ever to play in the Premier League is nothing new, but let's not make him the scapegoat alone. Thomas Vermaelen, say, has rarely looked so vulnerable. Wenger talked about "an hour of mistakes" and his captain was heavily implicated.
They got off lightly. "Pretty sloppy," was Van Persie's take, reflecting on the number of chances United had passed up. Ferguson shook his head, visibly annoyed. "I can't believe it. The chances we had to bury them … we should have scored five, six, even more. I'm disappointed. I spoke to the players at the start of the season about the importance of goal difference. We lost the league last season on goal difference and I don't want it to happen again. We had the chance to add to that today."
Van Persie alone could have had a hat-trick and it was strange, in hindsight, that he was not given responsibility for the penalty, from Santi Cazorla's handball, at the end of the first half. Wayne Rooney's penalty record now stands at seven misses from 20 in the league. Van Persie has also missed this season, as have Nani and Javier Hernández. "I think I'll take the next one myself," Ferguson said, without smiling.
As it was, Van Persie could still reflect on a "special day", especially as he claimed he had not heard the vitriol from the away end. "I played at Arsenal for eight years," he said, talking about his decision not to celebrate his goal. "I had a fantastic time. I respect the fans, the players, the manager, the whole club; that's why."
Yet the truth of why he had to leave Arsenal was reiterated here and it is that Van Persie had outgrown a club of such limited ambitions. Maybe Theo Walcott has, too, and unless something changes how long before the same questions are asked about players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere?
At least Wilshere showed an understanding of what this fixture used to mean, even if embedding his studs into Patrice Evra's ankle was not the best way to show it. As for Wenger, a small thing, perhaps, but it was certainly revealing that he faced only three questions in his post-match press conference. The truth is there is not a great deal to ask when Arsenal's problems are so old hat.
The wonky defence, the habit of making life hard for themselves, the shoddy errors, the problems created by fielding raw, unreliable players – it's all clouded in a sense of deja vu. It is Arsenal's worst start to a Premier League season under Wenger and it seems a long time since everyone at Old Trafford was so uptight about the Frenchman. They didn't like him back then because he represented a serious threat. Now they might as well make a "w" for "whatever" with their fingers.