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) congratulating the Frenchman on a fine career, there was 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 – probably for the first time he ever did in a conversation with the Scot. 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.
As is always with games that have very little riding on them, the match served as a microcosm, a reminder even, of the wider problems that have plagued the two clubs in the last few years – particularly Arsenal who would now go 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 and that is a long time in football to be cut adrift of the top end of the league table for a club that prides in serial trophy-hunting.
United started the game as they have done for most of 2017-18 following a good result in that they were ill-focused coupled with a smack of complacency – that has become a feature of this season at United following a good performance, almost undoing the value of it altogether.
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 and 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. But somehow, the home side would only register 2 more shots on target in the remaining 84 minutes plus stoppage time in a game that was ultimately bereft of purpose.
On Sunday, Wenger fielded a similar eleven and incidentally they were the youngest set of players he has ever put out in a league game since the 8-2 disaster all those years ago. With one eye on the Europa League semi-final second leg in Madrid on the horizon, it was understandable that Arsene Wenger prioritised the opportunity to reach a European final for the first time under his management – over 3 points at Old Trafford that would take them 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. Defeats against 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, their motivation has ebbed and flowed that has hampered all the momentum they needed to challenge a Manchester City side who were single-minded in their ambition to win the Premier League again – led by valuable title-winning experience in their nucleus that Manchester United now visibly lack in key areas.
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 defined the Premier League in many ways – are sadly long gone.