The significance of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United on Sunday was almost entirely historical. While United gave a first Premier League start to one teenage youth product and a debut as a substitute to another, nothing about the match suggested that the immediate future of either club promises a rapid return to the glories of their recent past.
The victory improved Arsenal’s miserable recent run of only two league victories over United in 11 meetings. It also gave Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, a first ever league victory over José Mourinho, a point the United manager hammered home after the game.
“Finally, I leave this stadium with Arsenal fans happy,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. “The first time I see them smile.”
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Maybe they weren’t smiling. At least they did not boo. Even the disloyalists seem to have accepted that Wenger is likely to stay.
The three points also kept alive Arsenal’s slim hopes of prolonging its two-decade run of top-four finishes. The Gunners remain sixth, six points behind City in fourth, seven behind Liverpool in third but if the win the games in hand they could, at least, make it close.
“There is a still a mathematical chance,” Wenger told Sky. “We need some help.”
Yet little about Arsenal’s display against a depleted opponent suggested it is close to recapturing the glories of the early Wenger years. At least, unlike United, it tried to attack. But, for the most part did so without belief.
The breakthrough came when Granit Xhaka, with no better options available, attempted a wildly optimistic long range shot after 54 minutes. Instead of blocking, Ander Herrera turned his back and stooped. The ball looped off him leaving David de Gea groping as it dropped just under the bar. Danny Welbeck added a second against his former club. With United set up to defend, that was more than enough.
“In the first half we could see we were bit nervous,” Wenger said. “In the second half, we had a good spell and took advantage of it and scored two goal in two minutes and that was the win today.”
Mourinho was equally unimpressed by Arsenal’s victory or its limited objectives.
“Arsenal was not better than us in my opinion,” he said “They score. They win. Congratulations.”
Arsenal won for the fourth time since adopting a back five. Yet the defense creaked alarmingly on the few occasions that United attacked with pace. The victory as hardly evidence that the system works.
Again, Wenger did not pretend that the result proved anything.
“All is not perfect but we are a bit more defensively focused,” he said when asked about the formation.
The result can give Arsenal fans hope that the season will not end in complete disaster, the display gives them little reason to dream.
DRAB REDS Unlike the home crowd, United fans could not even console themselves with three points after a loss that ended a 25-match unbeaten run.
They know that this was a team depleted by injuries and weakened by Mourinho’s choice to rest several starters who had played in Vigo on Thursday and would be needed for the return match next week.
“All on the Europa League. Everything for Thursday,” Mourinho said. “You can tell me we did not play the best players or the players that are your first choice at the moment.”
Mourinho dragged in Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Juan Mata, who have all been out injured. He gave a start to Axel Tuanzebe a 19-year-old who looked comfortable at right back, and some late minutes to Scott McTominay, a 20-year-old midfielder. That might make United fans happy. They like their kids.
Indeed, it allowed the United Academy account to Tweet that McTominay’s appearance meant United “have had more youth players appear in our first team since 1939 than bought players.”
That they had to go back to before the Second World War is revealing. Someone has had to trawl through every player to appear for the club in the last 78 years to answer critics who say United buys success. Stop whining and just own it. You’re rich. It’s what you do.
Yet the bigger problem for United fans was the grim way their team tried to eke out a result. By the end, four home-produced youngsters were on the field, but nothing about the display suggested that, even if Mourinho does not buy a load of high-priced veterans to take their places in the summer, he will let youth off the leash to create an exciting future.
BLUNT TRUTH Since soccer teams need to score to win matches, it might seem slightly odd to praise a manager whose team did not manage a single shot on target in 90 minutes.
Yet Claude Puel, helped by Fraser Forster’s penalty save, emphatically won his tactical battle with Jürgen Klopp on Sunday as Southampton drew, 0-0, at Anfield. Liverpool has not won in its last three home games.
Tactics are often simply a game of rock, paper, scissors. It helped Puel that Klopp does not like the rock option of big central striker and currently lacks scissors. Sadio Mané is out for the season and the Liverpool coach opted to start two more of his bladed weapons, Adam Lallana, who is returning from injury, and Daniel Sturridge, who is always returning from injury, on the bench.
Southampton massed in defense and defied Liverpool to find a way through. The nearest the home team came was when Jack Stephens threw a crazy elbow at the ball after 66 minute. Forster saved to end James Milner’s streak of successful penalty kicks. At that stage, the Saints had not managed a goal attempt of any type.
Sturridge and Lallana belatedly came on for the last 20 minutes but the pattern had been set.
The result ensured Tottenham will finish in the top four. Liverpool regained third but could still be overtaken by both Manchester clubs.
Milner gamely insisted the blame was entirely his.
“It was my fault for us not getting three points today, definitely my fault,” he told Sky Sport.
But Liverpool should not rely on its wing back converting penalty kicks. If it has to win its final game of the season, at home to Middlesbrough, its coach and its attacking players will need to rediscover a cutting edge.
LUCK VERSUS PLUCK There is a tendency in sport to work back from the result and believe that victory proves merit and defeat is deserved.
After the two matches Saturday that allowed Swansea to vault past Hull in the battle to escape relegation, the two managers certainly talked that way
Paul Clement called Swansea’s 1-0 home victory over Everton “a magnificent collective effort.”
After Hull lost, 2-0, at home to Sunderland, Marco Silva said his players “tried to do everything too fast in some moments, not be calm.”
Yet these were two scruffy games between four teams playing mediocre soccer. Two of the three goals were accidents. Fernando Llorente scored Swansea’s winner with his shoulder. Sunderland’s second bounced into the Hull goal off Jermain Defoe’s knee (and he was offside).
Hull dominated but was thwarted not only by its own wastefulness but by Jordan’s Pickford’s brilliance in the Sunderland goal. Swansea did stifle Romelu Lukaku, but even so survived several scary moments in the second half.
Swansea leads Hull by one point with two matches to go. One of them will go down, unless Hull drags Crystal Palace into the equation at Selhurst Park. The outcome will be decided as much by luck as pluck.
BROKEN BOTTLES One year and one day after the infamous meltdown at Stamford Bridge that cost Tottenham a two-goal lead, two points and its chances of winning the 2016 title, Spurs lost, 1-0 away to another London enemy, West Ham, on Friday to more or less end this season’s challenge.
Tottenham’s problem was that, once again it was chasing. Over the last month, when it has traveled it has faced teams setting up at home as if they were away. This is partly a sign of respect and partly an attempt to exploit Tottenham’s need for three points. Spurs was rather fortunate to win at Swansea and Crystal Palace. At West Ham its young attackers could not find a way out of jail. This time the breaks went the way of the home team.
This did not look like a team imploding so much as a side running out of gas. Last season, Tottenham went to Chelsea six points behind Leicester with three rounds to play. Despite a long, brave chase, the Spurs title challenge was already dead. This season, despite an even longer, braver pursuit, it went to the London Stadium four points behind Chelsea with four games to play. Its chances were slim.
Unless Chelsea collapses, the English title will be won, for the second straight year, by a team that did not play in Europe. Tottenham has played seven more games than Chelsea. The gap between them was created in the fall on the six weekends after Champions League games. Tottenham dropped 10 points in those matches, while on the same dates Chelsea dropped just three. It so happened that, for Tottenham, those six matches included a home game against Manchester City and away matches at Arsenal, Manchester United and, yes, Chelsea. The defeat at West Ham only compounded the damage done more than six months earlier.