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No matter what the outcome of yesterday’s game between Manchester United and Arsenal, it would always be the case that we would find out more about where the visitors were more than the hosts.
United’s injury problems have created a unique situation whereby under-pressure manager Louis van Gaal does not have any respite from criticism and yet barely received any of the praise deserved following an improbable win over Arsenal which has been attributed to the Gunners’ inability to prove their title credentials once again.
Arsenal could still win the Premier League, despite losing at Old Trafford. Following their game against Spurs next weekend, their run-in is favourable and they should pick up enough points to see them overcome Leicester. The problem for Arsenal is that they’ve been dealing in ‘should’ for such a long time that they’ve almost become burdened by the word.
For years the club were perhaps prematurely heralded as genuine contenders and as such some of the years of their league title wilderness can be explained - from 2005 to 2011, Arsenal were a considerable distance behind the genuine world class quality at United and Chelsea. Since then, the comparative stability at the Emirates should have put them in prime position to challenge for the league whilst other clubs underwent transition; but instead of moving up to that next level, Arsenal have stagnated. It is a running joke amongst rival supporters that the wheels come off at this time every year for Arsenal’s title challenge but it’s no laughing matter for supporters who have been cajoled into a sense of expectancy.
After years of talking the talk it’s time for them to walk the walk. But yesterday they provided the perfect summary of their failings when they should not only have been United, but wiped the floor with them. They didn’t - that was the first problem. The second was in Arsene Wenger’s post-match reaction, where he staggeringly talked up his team’s performance and then dismissed United’s selection woes by saying ‘let’s not go overboard’ and then remarking about his opponent’s spending. An experienced manager such as Wenger ought to have considered the causation of events at Old Trafford and the turnover of experienced players lost to retirement in recent year. The ‘specialist in failure’ remark may be harsh, but a specialist in transition is something that Wenger has managed to make himself.
Yesterday he was pulling the wool over nobody’s eyes; Arsenal were favourites yesterday, and should still be considered favourites for the league, but maybe that’s the problem; there’s something distinctly unlikeable and enjoyable about this Arsenal side when they begin to play like a side who are entitled. Yesterday they played as if the three points were theirs from the second the team-sheets were announced and couldn’t match a vastly inexperienced United side.
From this point Arsenal should still win it; but yesterday is a shining example of the lack of quality this Premier League has when the prospective champions can not only be so far behind in Europe but also capable of such abysmal performances.
And so, normally, where one is harsh on one football side, that should reflect in praise for the other. Only this isn’t normal. Manchester United are a club gearing up for another managerial change and, though it won’t be publicly acknowledged, it does appear as if Louis van Gaal is somewhat more relaxed about the situation. He spoke of the impact of youngsters on their debut and this was an interesting insight to his own psychology; the pressure is off them to an extent, and also, in the circumstances, the pressure is off him a little.
Yes, United would have been crucified if they had lost with that selection. It wouldn’t have mattered that it was miles away from the manager’s first choice; that is the world that Manchester United have lived in for so long that they are still expected to compete even if they are forced to field a reserve right back, two midfielders in defence and end with something like their eighth choice left back of the season. Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Joe Riley have all played in the role (and someone is probably missing from that list) before young Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s impressive shift.
The game will perhaps be - unfairly - remembered for Arsenal’s poor display rather than United’s youthful exuberance but amidst all the turmoil and recriminations it ought to be remembered that in the last two games, Old Trafford has seen more entertainment than in any other games this season. And, in that respect, it should barely matter if there is an argument which exists which would see an entirely different ten men in front of David De Gea when all players are fit. Because this unlikely lot have won, and they have entertained.
Let this be a time for plaudits for young Marcus Rashford before the period of exaggerated expectation. Much has been made of the ‘four goals in two starts’ figure but scratch the surface and consider that the forward had only started two under 21 games prior to taking the field at short notice in the Europa League. It won’t be long until people begin jumping the gun and talking about Euro 2016 and that kind of knee-jerk reaction does not give due consideration to the gravity of the youngster’s accomplishments in the last few days.
One suspects this won’t be the case but theoretically that centre forward position is Rashford’s to lose; while Jesse Lingard, Guilermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson can all claim to deserve their first team places on form. Crucially for United, they seem to have stumbled on an unlikely situation where such adversity has created a wonderful unity between players and supporters. That togetherness may have come too late to get into the top four but it may make the difference in one of the cup competitions. Achieving the right balance between this new-found momentum and the gradual return of players may not bear any relevance to Louis van Gaal’s long term future at the club but it could prove crucial for any chance of success in the next three months.
One suspects that success in the FA Cup or Europa League wouldn’t be enough to mean Louis van Gaal will be Manchester United manager next season but Sunday was an interesting look into the psychology of two teams with significantly different aspirations this season. One team could have felt sorry for themselves and laid down, but instead, it was Arsenal who were once again masters of their own demise. If the Gunners fail to win the league it will obviously be days like yesterday that their fans will look back on; and one wonders if they will be satisfied to be reminded of Wenger’s hollow words of his team’s performance.
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.