Reaction to United’s late win over Arsenal.

End of an era

So this was Arsene Wenger’s last trip to Old Trafford and there was some interesting narrative to be found, albeit slightly contrived. With Wenger’s resignation from the Arsenal job comes the official end of the last true sporting rivalry in English football. Manchester United supporters had the good fortune to have Sir Alex Ferguson in charge of their team to maintain and restore previous levels of glory; Wenger’s greatest achievement was interrupted and ruined by the influx of oil money.

A couple of hundred miles south earlier in the day, Manchester City steamrolled West Ham on their way to setting more Premier League records. Nobody cared. Compare that to the bitter feeling of Arsenal and United clashes from 2002 to 2005, when the sides were competing to be the best in the country. Football is much, much poorer for having lost that, no matter what City’s and Guardiola’s apologists may say.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement did not provoke universal praise; his success was too raw and too fresh for certain rival supporter bases to bring themselves to praise his work. Arsenal supporters, amongst the chief victims of that success, were amongst the most reluctant.

I’m no apologist for Arsene Wenger, either. He was not only a bad loser (not a criticism in itself), he was a sore and bitter loser. The praise he received for his team’s supposed entertaining football was completely over the top especially compared to it occurring during a period where United were successful with some of the best players in the club’s history. United were qualifying for Champions League finals while Arsenal were being declared as the best in the continent for beating Derby County 5-0. Wenger was praised for setting trends with players diets when there is plenty of evidence to suggest the revolution had begun more than five years prior to his arrival in England. He was praised for giving chances to young players as if the class of 92 never existed. He has long since been portrayed as the thinking man’s favourite, the intelligent diplomat who ploughed for the furrow for yesterday’s hipsters. This was a manager who was so enraged by being tactically outsmarted by Alan Pardew once that he physically got in his face.

Perhaps the point which tells us so much about Wenger is the one that we do, however, give him credit on. He tried to play football the right way. It is questionable how effective he ever made this successful by himself. At his best he did it with a defence he largely inherited in 1998 and 2002, the two Arsenal teams which were surely the best in the club’s history.

Once those defenders had gone, he gradually had to demonstrate capability in that area as a coach, and over time he has proven to not be quite as successful in that area as he might have liked. That period had coincided with the Oil period and every time he seemed to be getting somewhere, Chelsea, then most prolifically City, then quite pointedly United, would come and take their best players. So we will give him some praise here – lost potential may be a strange phrase to associate with such a veteran, but maybe we’ll never know how good Wenger could have been as a coach because of the money Chelsea and City have had handed to them.

As it stands, for all the plaudits about Wenger being the club’s best ever manager, perhaps they would have achieved more over the last decade with a manager like George Graham.

Wenger was given a warm, respected and classy reception from all at Old Trafford. It’s more than you can say for some Arsenal fans who are desperate to hang on to the embers of a rivalry that only serves to illustrate how far their own team have fallen.

The Chameleons

An insight into United’s biggest issue. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United’s squad has appeared to have an issue motivating itself. That’s usually not an issue in bigger games, or, for want of a better phrase as this barely classed as a ‘big game’, against the bigger clubs.

For the first half at least you couldn’t question United’s motivation. This was Arsenal, after all. And they started well enough, scoring early. And then the complacency set in, the complacency which comes from an occasion like this, the sort of attitude which has been commonplace in games still fresh in the memory like West Brom.

It can be said that Jose Mourinho’s approach as manager doesn’t help this; United are almost always set up to do just enough and it’s a tactic that doesn’t lend itself well to this group of players. It is the manager’s problem to solve but it is one he inherited. Should he solve it, United will take possibly the hugest step forward. Today’s evidence suggests there is a little way to go.

As soon as the equaliser went in this became a game that United didn’t really deserve to win. Well, that much comes with a disclaimer – they scored two valid goals, and Arsenal scored one, so they did just about deserve to win. But they weren’t brilliant, which is the overriding point.

Victory mathematically guaranteed Champions League football for next year. It provided a huge boost for their chances of finishing second. It is the first time United have ever won against Arsenal in injury time in the Premier League; and despite the battles these teams have had, there was none of the euphoria of past victories. It may well rank as the most shrug-worthy of any Premier League win over the Gunners.

This composition of United players is capable of playing up or down to any occasion. They can come back from 2-0 down to win at Manchester City and within a week they can conspire to lose at home to the worst team in the league. The sooner Jose Mourinho manages to get the message through to these United players that playing for the club is an occasion in itself, the better.

A team of individuals

When United play like they did today there is the easy point to make that they still don’t look right. When the going gets tough it seems to be too often the plan that the players go by themselves instead of coming together collectively. Some could argue this came with a benefit because it could be said the goal came from this.

But Paul Pogba’s attempts to win it by himself? Anthony Martial’s final ball? This is a point for those individuals and it doesn’t matter if either player remain at United for it to be true – their decision making at the crucial point needs to be better than the highlight reel five seconds which precede it. It will ultimately be the quality of that final decision which will determine how each player fulfils their incredible potential.

A smart move

Jamie Redknapp questioned Mourinho’s substitutions at multiple times through the match. After criticising Rashford and Martial’s place on the bench, and no longer having that ammunition after their introduction, the former Liverpool man continued unabated, this time panning the boss’s choice to bring on Fellaini instead of Mata.

Mata was ineffectual against West Brom last time out at home and afterwards Mourinho explained that Fellaini was brought on because of the physical presence lost through Lukaku’s injury. Route one, or compensating for a lost weapon?

Either way, the manager deserves praise. His decision won the game, his decisions have mostly been good as opposed to poor since he became Manchester United manager. Too many times has he been criticised during an uncertain period of a game, so much so that the criticism remains spoken even on occasions when United ultimately win. No other manager is open to this level of scrutiny — just look at the reception to Jurgen Klopp after those recent poor results in the league. Nobody cares. United are at their best when all supporters are on the side of the manager and the current incumbent has surely earned that right now.