Man U rolled out the red carpet for Arsenal manage Arsene Wenger in his final match as head man of the Gunners.
The Guardians Jamie Jackson:” The first question received an emphatic answer: Arsène Wenger was given a rousing ovation as he strode along the Old Trafford touchline that ended with an embrace from the waiting Sir Alex Ferguson.
It occurred between the Manchester United and Arsenal dugouts, the kind of warming moment José Mourinho had wondered, during the build-up, if the Frenchman might enjoy.
Yet with the Portuguese reluctant to join the pair as photographers snapped away – he did, finally, for a moment – this added to the sense of Wenger as yesterday’s man, as he was presented with a vase by a manager now five years retired.
In a fixture Ferguson believes “made the Premier League” when he and Wenger clashed as fierce rivals, Mourinho hoped to move United closer to a second-place finish, and Wenger to give Arsenal fans a final golden memory at this venue. The standout one is surely the Sylvain Wiltord goal in May 2002 that clinched the title during far happier days for Wenger. That term also ended with the second Double the 68-year-old garnered for the north London club.
Yet if his dismal run of 14 years without the championship is, ultimately, why his 22-year reign will end in mid-May, this was a chance for a final salvo against his greatest foe.
A sign of the dissipation under him could be found in the fact that he has only achieved one league victory at Old Trafford since that 2002 win, a 1-0 triumph courtesy of Emmanuel Adebayor in September 2006.
A bid for a fourth in 22 visits in the competition – the other was in March 1998 – appeared unlikely at kick-off. A severely weakened side Wenger sent out included the 21-year-old debutant Konstantinos Mavropanos, and was selected with the Europa League semi-final second leg at Atlético Madrid on Thursday in mind. To witness an Arsenal manager fielding such a weakened side seemed an apt swansong for him as Arsenal No 1 at the stadium. And while the team hurtled at United briefly at the start, on 16 minutes Wenger made a first appearance in the technical area to remonstrate with his players after Paul Pogba gave United the lead.
It had the home faithful sarcastically singing, “Arsène Wenger – we want you to stay”; which was followed immediately by the visiting fans retorting “Arsène Wenger – he won the league here”.
If the Stretford End’s further response regarded the number of crowns claimed – “20 times, 20 times, Man Utd” – this was again a reminder of former glory days when febrile feeling between the teams studded their status as Premier League titans.
Arsenal’s big challenge for this season is to regain Champions League status through winning Europe’s second tier competition, and United’s to achieve a highest finish of runners-up since that 20th triumph, which came in Ferguson’s final season.
Remarkable in Arsenal’s decline under Wenger has been how his side have come to possess such little personality. Where once peopled by alpha-footballers like Ian Wright, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp, now it can be a near‑characterless proposition.
Despite the eight changes Wenger made in readiness for the trip to Madrid, he could still select Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre‑Emrick Aubameyang, Alex Iwobi, Héctor Bellerín, Saed Kolasinac and Granit Xhaka.
Yet when half-time arrived this had been the latest anonymous display under him. If Wenger wished to go out by hitting the high notes, a stentorian lecture was required before the second period.
When it began he had a vociferous support that was lacking from fans during the previous weekend’s 4-1 defeat of West Ham United at the Emirates. But then, his team gave Wenger what was really wanted: an equaliser, as Mkhitaryan, who left United for Arsenal in January, rolled a sweet finish past David de Gea.
To chase the match Mourinho replaced Jesse Lingard and Ander Herrera with Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini with 25 minutes left respectively, and the latter popped up with an added-time winner.
Ferguson bashed the nail squarely on the head with his comment about the rivalry with his old sparring partner elevating the domestic game: Wenger will always have a place in Premier League folklore because of the magnificence of his early teams.
Yet in football terms that is a sepia-tinted age, and the occasion’s most telling moment came when Mkhitaryan levelled the match yesterday. “We won the league, in Manchester,” sang the Gunners crowd. That occurred 16 years ago.
They also chanted “There’s only one Arsène Wenger”. But, there have been two in charge of Arsenal: the pre-eminent incarnation of 1998‑2004, and the one that followed. This defeat spoke loudly to that narrative.