Lacking in intensity and urgency, the final game between Manchester United and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal was everything the fixture had been reduced to in the last decade.
As Arsene Wenger was welcomed with a standing ovation and a short commemoration ceremony that involved former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the incumbent manager Jose Mourinho—slightly reluctantly, if I may say—congratulating the Frenchman on a fine career, there came a sharp indication as to how little the game that followed would actually matter.
During the pre-match event, Sir Alex Ferguson even presented a piece of silverware, jabbering away in rapid Scottish as Wenger smiled and nodded in agreement; likely a first for a conversation between the two. Later, the 68-year old would remark: “Once you are not a danger any more, people love you!” Wenger has never been more right about anything.
Gunners and United, playing it out
As is always with games that have very little riding on them, the match served as a microcosm—a reminder perhaps—of the wider problems that have plagued the two clubs in the last few years. In particular for Arsenal, they have been without a proper title challenge—let alone coming out on top of one—for 14 years now.
Manchester United, on the other hand, have now gone on without a title push for five years straight. That is a long time in football to be cut adrift of the top end of the league table for a club that prides itself on serial trophy-hunting.
United started the game as they have done for most of 2017-18: following a good result in their previous outing by coming out in an ill-focused state, coupled with a smack of complacency. That has been the club’s pattern this year. At times their lackluster performances have almost undone the value of their good ones altogether.
The cloud that comes with the silver lining
After one of the best results the Red Devils have had in the season—a fully deserved 2-1 win in the FA Cup semi-final at the National Stadium against Tottenham Hotspur—Manchester United flattered to deceive in the week after at Old Trafford to their now lesser North London rivals in a game that could not have been a lot different to a testimonial.
United scored first, in the 16th minute, as Paul Pogba—who has been in good form of late—capitalised on a fortuitous rebound from the near post. 1-0. For a moment it looked as if this was going to be a repeat of 2011 when Man United stuffed a young Arsenal side 8-2.
On Sunday, with one eye on the Europa League semi-final second leg in Madrid on the horizon, Wenger fielded a similarly inexperienced eleven as he had then: the youngest set of players he has put out in a league game since that 8-2 disaster all those years ago. Yet it was understandable that the Frenchman had prioritised the opportunity to reach a European final for the first time under his management over a mere 3 points in league at Old Trafford. A reward that would move his side from sixth to sixth.
But there is no similar justification for Manchester United on Sunday, to play in second gear for most of that match except to assume that it was just a pattern that repeated itself like clockwork. Following Pogba’s opener the home side somehow would only register 2 more shots on target in the remaining 84 minutes (plus stoppage time) in a game that they also clearly saw as ultimately bereft of purpose.
Losses to Newcastle United, Sevilla and more recently West Bromwich Albion were not freakish results on extraordinarily unlucky days. Manchester United deserved all of those defeats, even though they are, in some ways, self-inflicted.
United’s performance levels have rarely been coherent or consistent in the last five years and under Mourinho that has remained the same (despite the obvious progress made in terms of results).
And this season, the Red Devils’ motivation has ebbed and flowed as noted. Such inconsistency has hampered all the momentum they needed to challenge Manchester City. Their derby rivals have been single-minded this year in their ambition to win the Premier League again. City are a side led by a nucleus of players who have valuable title-winning experience. The kind of which Manchester United now visibly lack in key areas.
En fin, Wenger
However, all of that was momentarily forgotten when a looping header from substitute Fellaini found the back of the net in ‘Fergie time’ and United claimed all 3 points in their pursuit for second place. In a fitting send-off to Arsene Wenger, United got the job done even when they were far from their very best—not that they needed to be—showing why the best days of the rivalry that once defined the Premier League in many ways are sadly long gone.