* Where were you when Manchester United’s great unbeaten run came to an end? We have truly been privileged as football fans in 2016/17 to watch this wonderful side embark on such a historic run of utter mediocrity that actually garnered them 11 fewer points than Chelsea, seven fewer points than Tottenham and only marginally more points than Liverpool or Manchester City, all of whom decided it was worth risking defeat in the pursuit of triumph.
A 25-match unbeaten run should be a source of pride but it has actually become an embarrassment, like Lee Clark’s 43-match unbeaten run in charge of Huddersfield when fans would have happily swapped a draw or two for an actual promotion. Counting matches unbeaten with no tangible progress is like boasting of shots on target if you never actually score a goal. Some United fans may even be happy to see the back of a run that inevitably engenders conservatism; they probably just wish they had lost it to anybody but Arsenal.
* Not that Jose Mourinho needs any more encouragement to be defensive in an away game against traditional rivals. It’s now been well over two years (New Year’s Day, 2015) since one of his teams even scored in an away game against a top-six side, and that was in a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham. That should give Mauricio Pochettino a warm glow ahead of the meeting between the pair next Sunday at White Hart Lane. Score a goal and you will win the game. By then, United will likely be back in sixth after starting Sunday’s game with their top-four fate in their hands. This will and really should amuse many.
* Mourinho had attempted to manoeuvre himself into a position where he could not lose this match but you would have to be spectacularly one-eyed not to see this as a defeat not just for the club but for the manager. Despite his best attempts to suggest that United have almost opted out of Champions League qualification via the Premier League, this is a campaign that has been royally cocked up. Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool have all been flawed, but Mourinho’s United are now likely to finish below them all.
Has this season been a success if United win the Europa League and League Cup but finish sixth? Oh for a time machine to go back to August and ask fans and pundits if this was an acceptable return. One thing is for sure; if they stumble in Europe, it has been nothing short of a disaster.
* As I wrote earlier in the week, Mourinho chose to pretty much limit himself to a 22-man squad. He knew the Europa League can be damaging, he presumably expected to go far in four competitions, and yet he did not properly equip himself for the task. So sorry but there is no sympathy here for poor ickle Manchester United – with their millions and gazillions – having to use that squad at a crunch time of the season.
Perhaps if Mourinho had trusted Axel Tuanzebe a little earlier, perhaps if he had not allowed ten members of his squad to depart last summer, perhaps if he had not ushered another three out of the door in January, he would have been better prepared for an end of the season which is busy but not unusually busy for a club that has ambitions to return to the European top table.
* So this was a ‘weakened’ Manchester United and yet it was an XI that was assembled for a price of £235.3m. That’s over £60m more than the Arsenal team that beat them. Does Mourinho still think he is in an “unfair fight” for a top-four place?
That United starting line-up featured eight of the 11 players who featured most regularly for Louis van Gaal last season. This was not a team of kids. This was not a team of has-beens or never-weres. This is a team that you would expect to finish higher than sixth; they did last season.
* Only Mourinho could buy the assist king of the Bundesliga and turn him into a wing-back. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s average position on the pitch was inside his own half. That has to be seen to be believed. At times it looked like a seven-man defence, with Michael Carrick dropping between the two centre-backs and Mkhitaryan and Mata tucking in beside their full-backs.
Is this what Manchester United wanted when they enlisted a multiple title-winner as manager? We all knew he was instinctively defensive but some argued that the history and expectations of United would force him to have more verve. There has been some marginal improvement but that amount of money and that kind of manager should deliver more than marginal improvement.
The Emperor might not be naked but right now he is wearing no more than a G-string.
* Right from the opening whistle, this felt like a different Arsenal side to the one that was picked off so easily by Tottenham, though the caveat of course is that Spurs are currently a far better side than Mourinho’s Manchester United (which should be a source of real embarrassment, by the way, considering the difference in the two clubs’ finances).
It immediately felt like a game that Arsenal could and should win. Not because of United’s ‘weakened’ side but simply because they looked simultaneously the more comfortable and the more dangerous. It’s a shame that it has taken so long for Wenger to try out a three-man defence because it clearly suits some of his players, Aaron Ramsey in particular.
* We have been critical about Ramsey and his lack of discipline in central midfield, flying off in search of hero status and leaving his partner to do the workload of two men. But the extra protection of a third centre-back with licence to step up and challenge in midfield releases the Welshman and gives him the luxury of making forward runs without the ball. This season we would call it ‘doing a Dele’ but in the past it has been synonymous with Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard.
In the opening 45 minutes, United apparently had no idea who should be dealing with Ramsey and his runs. The midfield were reluctant to go with him and potentially leave Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil to make hay in the middle, and Phil Jones just wished he was still injured because this was all terribly hard work.
* In that opening 45 minutes, Mourinho’s decision to detail Matteo Darmian and Tuanzebe with something akin to man-marking duties backfired spectacularly. All Sanchez and Ozil did to combat this subtle plan was come inside, forcing the United full-backs to follow them and ensuring that Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had more space out wide. Sanchez in particular enjoyed moving central, three times playing balls through or over for Ramsey. He clearly relished seeing a teammate make intelligent runs; it’s a whole lot more fun than aiming for the chest of Olivier Giroud.
For all his frustrations this season, it is telling that Sanchez still thinks Arsenal play the best football in the Premier League. At least his creativity is embraced, while poor buggers like Mkhitaryan get hauled off after 60 minutes because they didn’t quite make the grade as a defender.
* Anthony Martial may be – in theory at least – United’s third-choice striker, but he was the right man for this particular job. His pace was always going to cause Arsenal’s high line problems, and he did look dangerous in the opening exchanges. The problem of course comes when the rest of the team drops so deep that you are no longer playing to his strengths but instead asking him to hold up the ball while he waits for Wayne Rooney to chug far enough up the field to help.
* And so to Rooney…
Who could possibly argue against Wayne Rooney being Man of the Match in this game. He just never gives up on anything .. chasing, harrying
— Mike Parry (@mikeparry8) May 7, 2017
The obvious answer is of course ‘everyone’. There are no prizes handed out for chasing and harrying, especially if the chasing and harrying does not end with any actual, you know, getting. He was the only outfield United starter who did not make a single tackle, and it was not for the want of trying; he just could not get close.
But we are not here to criticise anybody for simply getting old. Instead we will criticise him for choosing to shoot from a tight angle when presented with the ball by the combined comedy stylings of Rob Holding and Laurent Koscielny. Right-back Mata had hared up the pitch to get himself into a much better position.
China is calling, Wayne.
* Jamie Redknapp called the game “putrid” but nobody who had sat through 90 minutes of Liverpool’s 0-0 with Southampton could afford to be so choosy. This was Newcastle v Liverpool in the 90s compared to that sh*t-show.
In truth, the first half had been entertaining enough, though tinged with regret that these giants of the modern game are now in fifth and sixth and so far behind Chelsea and Tottenham. These are not great teams by any stretch of the imagination, but there was definitely a sense that sustained pressure from the Gunners would see Jones and Chris Smalling crack. And if they cracked once, there was no way back for a United side who had been robbed of any real ambition or creative confidence.
* So it was odd that Arsenal started the second half so flatly, with one exception. This was perhaps Granit Xhaka’s most impressive game in a Gunners shirt – at least against credible opposition. Yes, there were a couple of rash moments that had Gary Neville sighing, but his range of passing was a joy. Only four of 74 passes went astray, and all six of his long passes found their target.
Perhaps it was Sanchez’s failure to get past the promising Tuanzebe, and then Gibbs’ terrible cross – both found by a raking ball from the Swiss – that led Xhaka to step forward and shoot from what Neville called a “ridiculous position”. Thanks in part to a deflection, it gave Arsenal a lead that would presumably force United to take more than a passive role in the game.
* Ander Herrera’s decision to turn his back on Xhaka’s shot should make a mockery of already-ludicrous claims that the Spaniard is ‘the new Roy Keane’. Nonsense. He is a more-than-decent central midfielder who has had an excellent season. For a team likely to finish fifth or sixth.
The fact that he has played considerably more football this season than any of his fellow outfield starters at the Emirates may offer some mitigation for the way he turned his back, but to suggest he is anywhere close to a Keane or a Robson is heresy.
Only two Premier League players (Harry Arter and Marten De Roon) have been dribbled past more often than Herrera this season. Does that sound like the new Roy Keane to you?
* Arsenal made it 2-0 soon after and the game was over. There were mistakes from Darmian and particularly from Smalling, who lost Danny Welbeck and then – when he did find him – thought it was appropriate to merely stand in front of him and jump. Oddly, that tactic did not work because the cross from Oxlade-Chamberlain was simply too good.
It is an odd statistic that The Ox has notched seven Premier League assists this season, which is more than in his previous five seasons combined. He has started only 15 games so it has been far from a belated breakthrough season, but the last few weeks have hinted that he may have a future as a wing-back. If Victor Moses can do it…
* The shame for us neutrals is that Arsenal have probably left themselves with too much to do to truly challenge for a top-four spot, for we dreamed of the confusing scenario of Arsene Wenger winning the FA Cup and finishing ahead of an expensive Manchester United side in fourth; suddenly the season would not look quite so disastrous, Wenger would have shown himself capable of change and nobody would quite know what to think.
What does warm the cockles is that – should Wenger leave this summer – he has finally beaten the Mourinho hoodoo. Some will claim that this victory does not count because United fielded a weakened side and had already sacrificed the league, but we know better don’t we?