Sunday afternoon marked the end of an era when Arsene Wenger came to Old Trafford for the last time as manager of Arsenal. Over the years, his sides have posed a real threat to Manchester United, with their best result seeing Arsenal win the league in Manchester in 2002. Yet their final meeting was indicative of the direction Wenger’s team has been travelling in over the past decade.
To be fair to Arsenal, they were playing a weakened side thanks to this week’s game against Atletico Madrid, as they hope to emulate Jose Mourinho’s success in the competition from last season to earn a place in next season’s Champions League.
Arsenal’s starting line-up was reminiscent of the side Sir Alex Ferguson put out to face the north London team in the FA Cup in 2011. With a Champions League game three days later, Ferguson selected a midfield of Rafael and Fabio Da Silva on the wings, with John O’Shea and Darron Gibson in the centre of midfield. United won 2-0 that day but Arsenal couldn’t recreate the same result with their under strength team.
United dominated the chances and possession but had to wait until injury time before a Marouane Fellaini header secured the three points. Of all the players to dig in the knife, it’s fitting that a clogger like Fellaini, the antithesis of everything Wenger has striven to achieve at Arsenal, was the one to do so.
After Paul Pogba took the lead for United in the first half, former United player Henrikh Mkhitaryan equalised five minutes after the restart, much to the delight of the away end. Having seen Robin van Persie win United the league in 2013, before Alexis Sanchez has started to show his match-winning capabilities in the Manchester derby and FA Cup semi-final this season, they were desperate for some bragging rights.
At the final whistle, Mkhitaryan hugged and laughed with his former teammates on the pitch, clearly not as stung by the result as Arsenal fans were.
While the three points secured Champions League football for United next season, as well as putting them firmly in second ahead of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the game was largely about Wenger.
Ferguson, once an archenemy of the Arsenal manager, presented Wenger with a trophy before kick-off. His presence on the pitch, with Ferguson’s arm around him, brought about warm applause from United supporters. “It shows once you’re not a danger any more people love you,” Wenger accurately claimed after the game.
The defeat at Old Trafford confirmed Arsenal’s lowest points tally during Wenger’s 22 years at the club. While he’s had several FA Cups to celebrate over the past few years, they’ve largely served as consolation prizes in what were otherwise disappointing seasons. If only he had made the decision to bow out at the end of the last campaign, following the impressive victory over champions Chelsea at Wembley, and left on a high.
Instead, he stubbornly soldiered on, despite the Emirates boos and protests from the Arsenal fans, who largely grew tired of him years ago.
Wenger was once a great adversary for United and Ferguson, with the legendary United manager claiming the treble in 1999 was possible, in part, because of how high Arsenal raised the bar that season. To outdo Wenger, United had to win the league and FA Cup, with Fergie’s side finishing the season one point above them in the table and needing injury time of a semi-final replay to knock them out of the cup.
Yet as time went by, Wenger proved he didn’t have the same skill as Ferguson to build title winning team after title winning team, with strong mentality ingrained in to every side that the Scotsman created something that has been severely lacking at Arsenal over the past decade.
Are you talking about the same Arsenal that has finished ABOVE Man United in the EPL for the past four seasons?
— Michael Griffin (@GoonerGriff) December 31, 2017
Wenger’s inability to compete with Ferguson meant the United manager’s stance towards the Frenchman softened. The war of words died down and Ferguson instead spoke of his friendship and respect for his old enemy. This change in Ferguson also lead to a softening among the fanbase too, with Reds listening to the pleas of their manager to halt the more distasteful songs about Wenger in recent years.
United supporters can and will take enjoyment from Wenger’s demise but his exit isn’t entirely good news. “Arsene Wenger, we want you stay!” mocked the Old Trafford crowd on Sunday, knowing that his presence in north London meant United had one less team to challenge for the title.
As it is, Arsenal may well now employ a manager who is up for the fight and will spend their money better. Arsenal’s wage bill is currently the fourth highest in the Premier League, just £20 million short of United’s, and this season Wenger brought in two players who cost more than £50m, something United have done only three times in their history, suggesting there is money to be spent, and a better manager may spend it more wisely.
For now though, United supporters can reflect on the home and away victories they enjoyed against Arsenal this season, with Wenger’s last league win at Old Trafford taking place 12 years ago, in September 2006.
With a new manager, maybe the fires can be stoked between the two teams again, but as it is, Wenger has gone out with a whimper, and ended the fierce rivalry years ago through his unwillingness or inability to adapt and improve.