It had all the makings of the surreal, Ferguson and Wenger were reunited at Old Trafford before a ball was kicked and Sir Alex beckoned the unwilling United manager, Jose Mourinho forward for a photo opportunity, which must have captured the back of his head and right shoulder.
Ungracious to the last, the Portuguese self-professed special one, scampered to his position in the United dugout before he was infected with abject failure. Having won his first 13 encounters against the Frenchman and 3 more from the following five, Mourinho could pack away any anxieties in exchange for another comfortable days work before the Arsenal boss disappeared from his view forever.
Wenger shuffled the pack and included a group of Arsenal’s promising youth.
Maitland-Niles, Willock, Mavropanos and Nelson filled in for the more established stars of the first team and they gave a good account of themselves in difficult circumstances.
Maitland-Niles and Mavropanos were easily the pick of the new boys. Mavropanos, in fact, showed his more experienced teammates how to close down, show anticipation and put a foot in, the latter saw the end of Lukaku, who felt the full force of the Greek youngster and went off limping.
There was even room for Kolasinac, who makes as many appearances these days as a poorly Prince Phillip. Why Wenger has not used the solid and combative player more this season is something of a mystery but he will surely feature more after Wenger departs. There was an unusual mood around the ground and one wasn’t sure for a nanosecond if everyone was at the right stadium. It was as sedate as a cricket ground.
Old Trafford is usually an intimidating place, full of demanding and feisty Mancunians keen to witness a mauling. It left one hoping for a contentious decision that might light the fuse and rekindle the spirit of the old foes for one last battle cry but it remained distinctly agreeable. The Old Trafford crowd jokingly chanted for Wenger to stay, which prompted Arsenal fans to remind the opposition that Wenger won the title there.
That was as gritty as it got but at the close of this chapter of Wenger’s Arsenal career, it was apparent that although his teams had played superior football against the majority of United sides, he rarely faired well statistically. In 59 matches against United Wenger Won 19, Drew 13 and Lost 27, which illustrates the gap perfectly, regardless of scintillating goals and the praise of the pundits.
Ferguson may never truly admit the impact Wenger had on his own methods or that he pushed him to achieve more than any other manager in the English game but one could see the regard the Scot has for him. The match itself barely caught fire as predicted, two sides that used to tussle for supremacy of the premiership barely shifting through the gears. How one wished for the intensity of yesteryear.
Even the Old Trafford crowd acknowledged Wenger which was a particularly odd spectacle and it felt as if these two bitter rivals had buried the hatchet in recognition that neither were the great sides of the bygone golden era.
A rejigged Arsenal with one eye in the Europa League semi-final second leg, dutifully set about a Manchester United side that has divided its own supporters. At times they have been resourceful, solid and functional without sending the terraces into raptures but they are second in the Premiership and by ‘the Moyes standard’ they are the Barcelona of Manchester to City’s Real Madrid, although the gap in genuine class remains sizeable.
There was another equally good story to be had here. Sanchez and Mkhitaryan, who had traded clubs in the last transfer window, were now pitted against each other and their former clubs. Sanchez managed to contribute to Pogba’s opener by heading towards the goal only to be thwarted by the outstretched leg of Bellerin and the Arsenal post but the ball spun into the path of the grateful Frenchman to slot it into the gaping net.
Mkhitaryan then replied to level the score and remind Mourinho what he was missing. The special one has a habit of falling out with his players for failing to share his vision or in this case, defend enough. Manchester United were guilty of classic Arsenal like defending, leaving the former United man with acres of space to bang the ball low past a motionless De Gea.
Since moving to Arsenal, his form and confidence have started to return and next season promises to be something special if his partnership with Ozil and Aubameyang develops further. United continued to go close and were always likely to grab a second, Fellaini and Rashford combined to score what they thought was a fortunate second but it was ruled offside.
Then in typical Ferguson fashion, as the clock ran down, Fellaini jumped high in added time and the ball obligingly bounced off the back of his head and that of Xhaka to finish off the game. When you look at this game as a whole, United found it difficult to take hold of a match which saw them up against a depleted and makeshift Arsenal side and they were fortunate to take all three points. Mourinho will be satisfied with a win but really shouldn’t be.
On paper, United should have thumped the gunners but the youngsters more than made a game of it. For Arsenal, it’s more evidence that they require major surgery and a new face in the hot seat. Wenger’s side remains winless away in 2018, something that tells its own miserable story and almost defines the woes of Arsenal’s season. Wenger smiled as much as he could as the final whistle blew, waved at the crowd and shook hands, lots of hands. He leaves Arsenal surely knowing that his team aren’t capable of winning against any of the top six sides and that the decision to go, which clearly wasn’t his, was a wise one.
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