LONDON, May 8: Finally the “Specialist in Failure” got one over the “Special One”. Quite how much this Arsenal win will mean at the end of the season remains to be seen, in what was frankly a low-quality skirmish between the also-rans, but at last Arsène Wenger tasted victory in a proper competitive match, and in the Premier League, against Jose Mourinho. At the 15th attempt.
Yet how competitive was this game which rekindled Arsenal’s hopes of ending up in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League – which would be remarkable in this traumatically uncertain season – and also led Mourinho to declare that it would be “impossible” for Manchester United to now finish that high in the league?
The United manager has put everything on winning the Europa League – and gaining admission to the Champions League by that route – with the second leg of their semi-final against Celta Vigo to come this week with his side leading 1-0. “We go with everything on Thursday,” Mourinho declared – and so he has to progress at Old Trafford and win the final.
He has talked down United’s chances in the league and it seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with ready-made excuses. Mourinho will argue that he is just being realistic. Meanwhile, Arsenal have to go for it in the league. It is their only option – and so it showed.
It is nevertheless an unusual approach for any United manager, with eight changes made, including a league debut for 19-year-old defender Axel Tuanzebe, more complaints about injuries and fixture congestion, and a brazen declaration that his team played well and deserved more.
There were, inevitably, some barbs at Wenger and after the limp pre-match handshake there was a verbal slap across the face afterwards. Mourinho suggested he was sad that Arsenal were a club not winning trophies – they are in the FA Cup final – and despite the apparent defrosting of relations between these two managers, could not help but note that Wenger puts undue pressure on the fourth officials. Well it takes one to know one.
So Arsenal are now six points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand and four to play, but may have third-placed Liverpool more in their sights, with the gap seven points and two games in hand and momentum being lost by Jürgen Klopp’s team at a crucial stage. The goalless draw against Southampton at Anfield before this game kicked off gave Arsenal a lift, although beating United here did not quite warrant the ‘selfies’ again being posted, as Mesut Özil inevitably did from the home changing room. They never learn.
Tactically it was neither one thing nor the other from Mourinho’s team, who did not ‘park the bus’ – as they did recently away to City – or take the initiative, despite having a larger share of possession. United had a couple of chances in the first half, one in particular which should have been taken by Wayne Rooney – who appears a husk of the player he once was – when he latched on to Rob Holding’s poor back-pass, but there could be no substantial argument against the result.
Wenger will delight in that and in ending United’s 25-match unbeaten run in the league. It is admittedly one of the flattest unbeaten runs ever to be recorded which has lifted United from sixth to fifth and maybe, if Arsenal beat Southampton on Wednesday, back to sixth again. There are lies, damn lies and statistics so it depends on your approach, but if United do not win the Europa League this will have been a special failure of a season from Mourinho.
Two second-half goals in just over three minutes did for United and they will look back at both and think they should have been prevented. There seemed little danger when Granit Xhaka collected possession 30 yards from goal but the Arsenal midfielder has a decent range from distance and chanced it with a left-foot strike. David De Gea would nevertheless have saved comfortably had the ball not taken a heavy deflection off Ander Herrera and looped over the wrong-footed goalkeeper. Inexplicably, Herrera had turned his back on the shot instead of trying to block.