Manchester United's Cruel Arsene Wenger Goodbye
The announcement of Arsene Wenger stepping down at the end of the season sent shock waves through the world of football. Off the Richter. The Frenchman is currently the longest-serving manager in the history of the English game.
Wenger has gone into battle, armed with the deadly Gunners', just two games short of a staggering 1200 matches in all competitions. Unparalleled. Inconceivable.
In 1996, Arsenal embarked upon a journey that would span over two glorious decades with the former Monaco man. Immediately he changed the way the North London side played the game.
The consequent Monday after his arrival at the hallowed grounds of Highbury, Arsenal were well on their way to altering their modus operandi. They trained differently for the upcoming fixtures.
Even the diets of the players were not left untouched by the obsessive-compulsive nature of their perfectionist new manager. Always striving to do better. Always venturing to achieve greatness.
What the Frenchman failed to envisage was that once you do attain perfection, there is very little room for improvement. Therefore, after their rendezvous with divinity in the glorious season in 2003/04, Arsenal slowly slide back into irrelevance.
Mediocrity became the calling card for a football club that had exalted itself from the stature of just another football club. It seemed that suddenly a team that was operating with the same efficiency of an F-22 Raptor could be flummoxed with something you bought at radio shack.
Same old problem at Old Trafford?
On Sunday, Arsene Wenger took his group of players, most still wet behind their ears, to the tormenting environment of Old Trafford in the Premier League. 75,000 strong. Packed to the rafters. Lying in wait to belittle their opponents. Their eternal rivals.
But Wenger’s young men showed the passion and fight that those in the red and white of Arsenal previously failed to muster up in the last eleven years.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? 11 years? Has it really been that long? Can it?
It is very much a part of our collective reality, that particular fact. Arsenal did manage to bury the ghost of not picking up a win at the Theatre of dreams, in all competitions, when Danny Welbeck managed to haunt his former employers by coming up with a winner in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup three seasons ago.
Even with the order of ascendancy being recently challenged by the North London club, with respect to their Manchester rivals, thanks to some scintillating football by the home team at the Emirates - the 3-0 demolition the season before last or the 2-0 domineering display just last campaign comes to mind - the Red Devils have always been a very different prospect on their home turf.
In their fortress of dreams, a fortress that even Leonardo Di Caprio would fail to infiltrate with his mind-reading Inception shizz, United have never let the Gunners leave with all three points in the past decade.
For a rivalry built up to be one of the biggest in the English game, we're left wondering if the statistics should be so heavily skewed in favour of one of the teams involved.
Arsenal fans often shrug off any reference to such relevant details by pointing out that their team is much more than just a tactically sound football team. They articulate their faith in the club by asserting that football cannot be broken down into numbers and statistics.
Football is an art-form, they'll say. Not rigid insipid math.
To be honest, we buy into a lot of that argument, especially as football fans. However, when the reality is humming another tune altogether you cannot hope to cover up the tangible shortcomings of the side with a cloak of invisibility because the first step towards fixing a problem is acknowledging that there is one. And also, no such cloak exists.
And if by some miracle it did exist, we reckon every Arsenal fan would be huddled underneath it.
Plaque or Plague?
Manchester United showed their class by honouring arguably their biggest obstacle to complete dominance of the toughest league in the world before kick-off. Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson came together before the start of play to create one of the finest moments in the League's history.
Even Marouane Fellaini's final minute heroics to seal all three points failed to steal the spotlight from went down before the game.
Thos who had goaded him were more welcoming on the day as Jose Mourinho congratulated the Frenchman with a sheepish grin. The Portuguese has been extremely forthcoming about his feelings towards the Arsenal manager in the past.
Yet despite repeated skirmishes between the two, Mourinho acknowledged that he regretted some of the harsh comments he had made about Wenger in the heat of the battle.
On the night though, it was all cordial, even testing the boundaries of social convention if you ask us. A beautiful sight to see nonetheless. A former virtuoso and a former prodigy, now two old-timers.
They'd gone out of their way to not even acknowledge the existence of the other. Decidedly incompatible. In their philosophies and their approaches.
Now embracing each other. Not just each other but also each others' successes. And their respective legacies. And what legacies they have been.
History repeats itself like a broken record
United were stunned by the character of a side with the lowest average age in the last six years or so in the league. This Arsenal side wasn't just making up the numbers, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the last time Wenger fielded a similarly inexperienced side at Old Trafford.
This side was ready to battle. To fight for every inch of the field.
That lingering fear the always seems to envelope the Gunners, when they walk onto the pitch in Manchester, was nowhere to the seen as they seized the initiative early on. United were getting bullied on their own patch. Was this finally going to be Wenger's moment?
Those questions were quickly put to rest. United with a huge amount of luck, as the ball presented itself to Paul Pogba after a divine interception by Bellerin to prevent the most recent footballer to make the switch from London to Manchester from scoring, took the lead in the 15th minute.
If you'd had stayed still, the groans of the Arsenal fans would've reached you. Another hiding on the cards? Far from it.
Arsenal managed the rest of the half superbly to prevent themselves any further self-inflicted injuries. But with Jose in his element at half-time, you would have predicted United to come out all guns blazing and build a memorial for not just the manager but all of Arsenal Football Club.
However, it seemed as though the ironic chants of "Arsene Wenger we want you to stay", not by the travelling Arsenal crowd but the Old Trafford faithful, rubbed the away side the wrong way as they galvanised themselves to get back on level terms. Another sub-plot, lost in the enormity of the occasion, of Henrikh Mkhitaryan coming to the fore.
The Armenian decided to pull the trigger from the edge of the box after Xhaka had done well to nick the ball off Ander Herrera. The ball rolled into the bottom left corner.
Far from Mkhitaryan's best moment at the Theatre of dreams. Surely his most satisfying.
As expected, United piled on the pressure after getting pegged back. What wasn't expected was the way the Arsenal team stood firm under the assault. They looked assured, far more than any team that had made the journey before them. Monreal the only trusted Marshall in the back-line for Arsene.
As the minutes ticked by and United desperation came through, it felt as though it could finally happen. Maybe Arsenal could nick a goal at the other end. Not entirely smash and grab. But not far from it.
Amongst all those gloomy days in Manchester, maybe, just maybe, fate had a day reserved for Arsene Wenger.
90 minutes on the clock and Wenger's worst fear came to fruition. It's happened again.
Not only the timing but also the manner in which the ball needed up in the back of the net was a cruel reminder of just how hard it has been for the Frenchman in all those years coming up against the Red Devils at Old Trafford.
Arsene Wenger's final game as Arsenal manager at the grand old stadium was a summation of everything that has gone before it. United ruling the roost, Arsenal pegging them back, before United speeding off with all the glory.
We wonder every time Arsene looks at the memento that Ferguson handed to him and reads the plaque, will it provide him comfort or will he relive the horrors of the fate that was in-store for him at the ground he so famously won his second Premier League title at.
Despite the stellar ovation and the felicitation before kick-off, Manchester United handed Arsene Wenger the cruelest of goodbyes in world football.