There were familiar frustrations and failings from Arsenal on Arsene Wenger’s Old Trafford farewell, writes Peter Smith…
Arsene Wenger briefly allowed himself a sentimental glance at the past ahead of his final trip to Old Trafford as Arsenal manager. “We had some great battles in 22 years,” he recalled. “Intense” is how he described his long-running rivalry with Manchester United.
That fierce history was fittingly remembered by United managers past and present before kick-off, with Jose Mourinho – who had insisted his old foe would receive a suitable send-off – warmly greeting Wenger on the touchline before leading him towards a surprise gift presentation from former nemesis Sir Alex Ferguson.
Those classic scrapes with Fergie’s sides around the turn of the century, when United and Arsenal were often duelling for the Premier League crown, made this fixture the most important game on the calendar in those days. Arsenal’s excellence even led to Wenger being offered the chance to succeed the Scot.
But after the arrival of Roman Abramovich – and Mourinho – at Chelsea, followed by even bigger investment at Manchester City, those clashes now belong to a different era. United may be coming again after losing their way when Ferguson retired, but Arsenal have drifted from the top table.
And on Sunday there were glimpses of the recurring problems which have led to that slow, but steady, decline.
Neat interplay and a well-taken goal by Henrikh Mkhitaryan was outweighed by a Paul Pogba opener, which owed plenty to Granit Xhaka’s characteristically wild lunge, and Marouane Fellaini towering over the Arsenal defence to win an aerial duel and head in a late, late winner.
Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness slammed the lack of leadership in the Arsenal side and failure to coach Xhaka’s reckless streak out of him, while the absence of a commanding centre-half to deal with the physical threat of players such as Fellaini has been a long-term gripe of Wenger’s critics.
Arsenal’s away day blues
Arsenal have lost six consecutive away league matches in the top-flight for the first time since January 1966
Without a single point in Premier League away games in 2018 – the worst record across Europe’s top five leagues and England’s top four divisions – Arsenal’s weaknesses are plain to see.
They are familiar failings and are, in part, why Arsenal went into this fixture fielding their youngest Premier League starting XI in seven years, knowing they are all-but resigned to a sixth-placed finish (the worst of Wenger’s reign) and forced to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League semi-final second leg.
Graeme Souness criticises Granit Xhaka and Arsenal's lack of leaders
In truth, despite those changes, Arsenal competed well for long periods, with Greek debutant Konstantinos Mavropanos and Ainsley Maitland-Niles taking their chance. But, considering the 20-point gap now separating these sides in the league, this defeat underlined the different directions Arsenal and United are currently heading.
Arsenal’s next manager will have to make significant changes to arrest the slide.
As for Wenger, Fellaini’s late intervention made it a bitter farewell to Old Trafford for the Frenchman, a ground which has seen some of the best and worst moments of his managerial career.
There was glory in 2002, when Arsenal clinched their second double under the Frenchman with a 1-0 win at Manchester United, becoming the first Premier League team to go unbeaten away from home all season.
At that moment, with Wenger talking about a “power shift”, there was excitement at what was to come.
But after the thrills of the Invincibles, there was fire and frustration in 2004, when United ended Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run with a controversial 2-0 win, remembered for a penalty and pizzagate.
There was cruel humour in 2009 when Wenger was sent to the stands for kicking a water bottle, and taunted by the United supporters surrounding him.
And then there was embarrassment in 2011, as Manchester United handed Arsenal their heaviest defeat in 51 years with an 8-2 thrashing, eclipsing the 6-1 they dished out 10 years earlier.
Arsene Wenger’s record at Old Trafford
Wenger has lost 16 games at Old Trafford in all comps – five more than at any other stadium.
Sunday’s match-up lacked the ferocity of some of those standout fixtures but once again Wenger was on the wrong side of the result.
His record at Old Trafford as Arsenal manager will forever read: P28 W5 D6 L17. But that only tells part of the tale when it comes to Wenger’s storied history with United and this venue.
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