Wenger, stepping down as Arsenal manager at end of season, was honoured by the rival Premier League club. But it was the same old story as the home team won 2-1
One final frustrating Old Trafford outing for Arsene Wenger as Manchester United edge past Arsenal
As Arsene Wenger can testify, endings have a cruelty.
The Frenchman did not want his 22-year reign at Arsenal to be curtailed, but it is being. Now late drama is offering frustration in its final throes.
Three days after his hopes of a triumphant farewell were dented by Atletico Madrid’s 81st-minute equaliser in the Europa League came an unwanted reminder that Jose Mourinho has invariably had the beating of him.
If one theory was that Wenger’s makeshift side were callow enough to emulate predecessors who lost 6-1 and 8-2 at Old Trafford, they appeared on course for an unexpected point after Henrikh Mkhitaryan, perhaps making a point to the manager who discarded him, levelled.
Yet if Wenger has been the purist in the relationship, Mourinho is the pragmatist and there is something unashamedly pragmatic about turning to Marouane Fellaini and deploying direct football.
“We needed more presence in the box,” Mourinho explained.
It almost yielded a winner when the Belgian headed against the post and another replacement, Marcus Rashford, bundled in the rebound. He was offside, however, and instead Fellaini assumed the decisive role.
It may yet be Fellaini’s final Manchester United goal, though Mourinho said: “I think a player that grabs the crest after scoring is telling clearly that he wants to stay.”
The other scorer, Paul Pogba, reflected on an idiosyncratic Fellaini finish to Ashley Young’s cross: “You can touch it with your hair or with your nose as long as it goes in,” he said.
In the process, Fellaini’s unique frame guaranteed United the top-four finish that Wenger once secured on an annual basis.
Perhaps fittingly, it came in injury time. Fergie Time.
Alex Ferguson made a pre-match presentation to Wenger. “We did it fantastically well as a club,” Mourinho said as three managers with 19 Premier League titles between them converged. A more immediate statistic is that Wenger has met the Portuguese 19 times and won only twice.
This, however, was not his biggest game of the week.
He made eight changes, a callow side fashioned by the proximity of the trip to Madrid, and featuring a debutant, in the giant Greek Konstantinos Mavropanos, while the teenager Reiss Nelson made just his second league start.
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One of the few constants, Hector Bellerin, excelled at both ends of the pitch. Mkhitaryan, who went underused at Old Trafford after starting the season in electric form, proved a persistent threat on a timely return to fitness. He offered Mourinho a reminder of his qualities and steered an equaliser past a wrong-footed David de Gea.
It counted for nothing in the end, but at least it means Wenger has another attacking option in the Europa League eliminator.
The man who went the other way in the January swap deal had played a part in United’s opener. Alexis Sanchez’s diving header was turned on to the post by Bellerin, in a terrific piece of defending, before Pogba volleyed in the rebound. He had started the move, too, with a driving run that exposed a gaping hole in the Arsenal side where a defensive midfielder ought to have been.
Symbolically, sadly, Arsenal’s supposed holding midfielder was their captain for the day, Granit Xhaka. It was an illustration of why Wenger’s teams do not have the rock-like power of predecessors.
And yet they came close to a respectable result. Young hit the post with a cross but United lost the injured Romelu Lukaku and their way. This was not their most convincing performance, but it produced a scoreline that should help them secure second place.
And while Wenger was treated well by United at a ground where their supporters used to greet him with disgraceful chants, the urge to revel in his misfortune was too much for some of the home faithful.
They ended up chorusing: “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.”