Jose Mourinho’s mentor, Sir Bobby Robson, had a favourite saying whenever he was asked what might have been. “If is the biggest word in football, son.”
When he returned to his suite at Manchester’s Lowry Hotel, after what felt like his first defeat to Arsene Wenger, Mourinho would have been rolling football’s biggest word around his mind. His last three matches at Old Trafford, against Stoke, Burnley and now Arsenal were games Manchester United had controlled. The first two they had utterly dominated. Their return had been three points.
Saturday’s performance against Arsenal should have delivered something Mourinho had been searching for since his arrival at Old Trafford – a win against one of the big beasts of the Premier League. Instead, his return was a 1-1 draw.
“We should have had six more points, which we totally deserved,” he said. “If we had six more points, just see where we would be.” The answer to Mourinho’s question was that Manchester United would be sandwiched between Arsenal and Tottenham in fifth. The climb would be one place but in terms of proximity to the oxygen of Champions League football, it would be a giant leap.
Of the three teams that had taken points from Old Trafford, Arsenal had the best record in this corner of Manchester and they had not won here for a decade. Stoke’s last win had come in 1976 and Burnley’s in 1962. Mourinho described their three draws as “three miracles”, which given that Arsenal had rather more possession on Saturday, could be counted as an exaggeration.
However, frustration is eating away at the manager and his team. Phil Jones, returning to United’s defence at home for the first time since January, commented: “It feels like we have been slapped 6-0.” The reality was that Olivier Giroud’s 89th-minute equaliser was Arsenal’s sole attempt on target.
On Sunday, they face West Ham, who have not won here since May 2007 when Carlos Tevez’s goal kept them in the Premier League, although Neil Warnock, whose Sheffield United side was relegated as a result, will forever mention that Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a weakened side. “At least I want someone to come here and play better than us,” said Mourinho. “Then you can go home and say: ‘these guys were better’. I am going home and the feeling is that we lost.”
Manchester United vs Arsenal player ratings
Manchester United vs Arsenal player ratings
1/22 David de Gea - 4 out of 10
With Arsenal scoring their only shot on target, it’s not been the best day for the Spaniard. He had very little to do throughout.
2/22 Antonio Valencia - 8 out of 10
Performed exceptionally today, looking strong going forward and defensively.
3/22 Phil Jones - 5 out of 10
Did the simple stuff well at the back, but looked slow defensively at times.
4/22 Marcos Rojo - 6 out of 10
Defended well throughout proceedings, played safely and used possession well from the back.
5/22 Matteo Darmian - 5 out of 10
A mediocre performance from the Italian. He was lunging into challenges, despite already being armed with a yellow card.
6/22 Michael Carrick - 5 out of 10
The skipper played a very standard performance today. He played his role well and stuck to his position.
7/22 Ander Herrera - 7 out of 10
His work rate was faultless and he influenced play in the middle of the park – good overall performance.
8/22 Paul Pogba - 6 out of 10
He appeared to patrol the middle of the park in the first half, but in the second half he seemed to go off the boil. He did not make many chances and lacked any attacking prowess.
9/22 Juan Mata - 8 out of 10
An exceptional performance from the Spaniard today. His goal was an example of his immense technical ability and he created chances throughout.
10/22 Anthony Martial - 6 out of 10
A somewhat quiet performance from him today, but he showed glimpses of brilliance in the first half with a number of strikes that tested Cech.
11/22 Marcus Rashford - 6 out of 10
Despite being caught out for the late Arsenal goal, his performance throughout was positive. He attacked confidently and his crossing was inviting problems for the Arsenal defence.
12/22 Petr Cech - 6 out of 10
He made a number of important saves in the first half, but was out of position when Mata broke the deadlock.
13/22 Carl Jenkinson - 4 out of 10
It was a somewhat uncomfortable performance from him today, as he looked slow and unable to keep up with the pace of the United strike force.
14/22 Laurent Koscielny - 6 out of 10
He did well in the air today, but the United attack got the better of him at times as he was caught out of position.
15/22 Shkodran Mustafi - 5 out of 10
It was an incredibly mediocre performance by the German. He did well in possession, but that wasn’t enough at times.
16/22 Nacho Monreal - 5 out of 10
A questionable penalty call in the first half was the main incident for the Spainard. He failed to show his defensive ability against the quality of United going forward.
17/22 Francis Coquelin - 6 out of 10
Made a number of important tackles, but it wasn’t enough to stop his opponents running the midfield battle.
18/22 Mohamed Elneny - 4 out of 10
The Egyptian made a few unneeded and mistimed challenges and failed to show any sign of threat when going forward.
19/22 Aaron Ramsey - 5 out of 10
He had very little of the ball throughout, and when he did he failed to do much with it.
20/22 Mesut Ozil - 5 out of 10
Taking into account his huge talent, it was a rather dim performance. He failed to create chances and feed Sanchez which resulted in Arsenal having no spark going forward.
21/22 Theo Walcott - 4 out of 10
A very quiet performance from the winger today. He saw very little of the ball and was regularly caught playing too narrow which left Arsenal with no width to their attacks.
22/22 Alexis Sanchez - 6 out of 10
He looked dangerous when in possession, but a lack of service did not allow him to make a real impact on the game.
A club with the highest wage bill in world football can only argue ill-luck for so long and the fact is that a third successive Manchester United manager is on course to fail to qualify for the Champions League, something that proved fatal to the careers of both David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
Mourinho might just survive the £40m hit that accompanies the Alaska that is life outside the Champions League and the absence of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic added to the decline of Wayne Rooney meant he fielded the young, fast combination of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. That, in the long term, might be a combination that works very well for United, which for Rooney would have been another blow in a bruising week.
His absence had nothing to do with the England captain’s drunken piano playing at a wedding party that had seized the headlines but in Mourinho’s belief that his team needs pace.
“Arsenal are a team that let the opponents play,” he said. “I thought we would have space and the ball would arrive quite easily to the attacking players. I believed that ones like Mata, Martial and Rashford were faster than Wayne and were better at attacking opponents one to one in the last line of defence. I thought it was the best option.”
There was a time when Rooney, who as an Everton teenager announced himself with a staggeringly brilliant goal against a far better Arsenal side than this, was sometimes Manchester United’s only option. In a Manchester United side that is still searching for rhythm and fluency he has not started a league game since September. That is worthy of far more comment than any star turn at wedding party.Reuse content