It should not have lasted this long, in theory. But it has, at least until the half-time whistle at the Emirates thanks to Liverpool’s tepid 0-0 stalemate against Southampton.
Following the final whistle, marking Mourinho’s first defeat in a competitive game at the hands of Wenger in 16 attempts, United’s season has reached the stage where they know full well what they must to do to finish on a high – with two trophies in the bag and Champions League qualification to boot.
It’s really hard to dissect the performance when there are so many variables in play for both sides, particularly United – which could easily be perceived as excuses or easy getaways in this modern-day and age.
But the truth of this season, whether Manchester United supporters like to admit it or not, is that the Europa League has been their priority ever since they made it to the last four of the competition and that decision could well be vindicated in Stockholm, if they could win their next two games in Europe.
Or not. There lies a whole campaign post Louis van Gaal and a £150m outlay – hanging by a fine thread.
Jose Mourinho may not have addressed the shift in focus in public, although he did for the very first time after the club’s tenth home draw against Swansea City and from then on, it belies logic to expect anything different to what happened on Sunday from the players he fielded and saw fit to do a job for him – like they diligently did so many times this season, trading off the invention going forward, in exchange for resilient and stubborn defending.
United’s strong performances this campaign have very often come from the back, but the defence that was put together on Sunday with one debuting and two returning from a month-long injury lay-offs were simply not cut to protect the goal enough at the Emirates against an Arsenal side littered with attacking prowess.
United, after a fairly bright start in North London, a start they could have capitalised on with an early goal, had their finishing not followed a disappointing trend of abject mediocrity. The first half ended 0-0, pretty even, in terms of chance creation and territorial domination.
But out came Arsenal in the second half with the fight and determination that they have not shown very often this season, and scored two quick goals – through Granit Xhaka and Danny Welbeck, the ex-Manchester United forward has now scored in 3 of the last 4 games he has played against his former club, to effectively put an end to any lingering Champions League qualification hopes through one of the two doors the visitors have available to them.
Jose Mourinho, in a typically snobbish fashion, chose his words wisely post-match, as he patronizingly spoke in support of Arsenal fans who made their intent very clear at several points during the game – offering plenty of profanity and disdain. He said,
“I don’t think they think about it. I don’t think they’re desperate. Arsenal fans are happy and I’m happy for them. It’s the first time I leave and they’re happy. I leave Highbury, they were crying. I leave the Emirates, and they were crying, walking the streets with heads low. Today they leave with their scarves. It’s a big club. You think I enjoy a big club like Arsenal not winning trophies? I don’t enjoy it… but today I tried to win. Arsene Wenger is not a small manager. He’s a big manager, to have that record of winning so many matches is not normal. ‘Normal’ is win, lose, draw.”
With that, Mourinho has drawn the curtain on another strikingly ordinary Premier League campaign for Manchester United who could now finish outside the top four in three of the last four seasons post Sir Alex Ferguson.
But the priority at the moment, as it has been for sometime now, finally becomes the necessity as United walk a tightrope under the Portuguese.