Tuesday 6 December 2016

Lucky Arsenal leave Mourinho cursing yet another story of 'if only'

Tim Rich

Published 21/11/2016 | 02:30

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford (left) and Arsenal's Francis Coquelin battle for the ball. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford (left) and Arsenal's Francis Coquelin battle for the ball. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Jose Mourinho's mentor, Bobby Robson, had a favourite saying whenever he was asked about what might have been: "If is the biggest word in football, son."

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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.

Arsene Wenger and Joe Mourinho look the other way at Old Trafford. Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Arsene Wenger and Joe Mourinho look the other way at Old Trafford. Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

His last three matches at Old Trafford - against Stoke, Burnley and now Arsenal - were games United had controlled; the first two they had utterly dominated. Their return has been three points.

Saturday's performance 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.

"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."

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil in action with Manchester United's Phil Jones and Ander Herrera. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil in action with Manchester United's Phil Jones and Ander Herrera. Photo: Reuters / Phil Noble

The answer to Mourinho's question was that United would be sandwiched between Arsenal and Tottenham in fifth.

The climb would be just one place, but in terms of proximity to the oxygen of Champions League football, it would be a giant leap.

Frustration is eating away at the manager and his players. 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."

Next Sunday, United face West Ham, who have not won at Old Trafford 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 Alex Ferguson fielded a weakened side.

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney in action with Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny. Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney in action with Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny. Photo: Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

"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."

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 truly 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. I thought we would have space and the ball would arrive quite easily to the attacking players," he said.

"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 United's only option.

In a 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.

Wenger, meanwhile, praised his side's "resilience" and talked up the "great harmony" in his squad after Olivier Giroud had cancelled out Juan Mata's superb finish, but it was hard not to characterise this as some sort of defiant last stand.

It was little more than a fortunate smash and grab and, up until Giroud's late intervention with a fantastic header, it was a game that raised a whole host of questions about Arsenal's title credentials.

When the euphoria of what Wenger said "feels more than a draw" has subsided, the Arsenal manager will surely ask how his side failed to create so few chances and ask so few questions of a makeshift United defence that had seemed there for the taking.

Instead, he watched on as Mesut Ozil disappeared from view, Aaron Ramsey resembled a square peg in a round hole on the left flank and Alexis Sanchez became increasingly isolated up front.

As dismayed as Mourinho might have been at Andre Marriner's failure to award United a penalty in the first-half for a challenge by Nacho Monreal on Antonio Valencia, Wenger had equally good reason to feel similarly aggrieved by the referee's decision not to dismiss Matteo Darmian shortly before.

The United left-back, already booked for a foul on Theo Walcott, caught Carl Jenkinson with his studs, but escaped with a warning.

By the end, though, Wenger could have no complaints.

Arsenal were sloppy in possession, there was no urgency and there was a marked lack of conviction against opponents who have now won two of their past nine league games. © Independent News Service.

 

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