When Arsene Wenger announced just nine days ago that he would be stepping down as Arsenal manager at season’s end, there was widespread relief. There was also hope. Hope that the timing of the announcement would instantly reenergize the club, and allow Wenger to receive the extended sendoff he deserved.
Instead, nine days in, nothing has changed.
Nine days in, the farewell tour has been underwhelming. It’s been strangely mundane. It’s been “same old Arsenal.” And Sunday’s visit to Old Trafford, which should have been one of several highlights, was par for the course.
What could have been one final gripping chapter to two separate rivalries, one between manager and manager, the other between manager and club, instead more closely resembled a preseason friendly. It was meaningless because the league table made it so, but also because the two teams decided it would be so. The was no sense of occasion. There was little urgency.
And just like there had been three days earlier at the Emirates, there was disappointment for Arsenal.
Marouane Fellaini’s 91st-minute winner condemned Wenger to his 17th defeat in 28 games at Old Trafford, a 2-1 loss that confirmed Arsenal would finish outside the Premier League top four with its lowest point total under Wenger. It was Arsenal’s third subpar performance in three games since the Frenchman announced his resignation.
But more than anything else, it was dull. Aside from a touching pregame reception for Wenger engineered by United, Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, there was nothing exceptional about the afternoon. There was nothing to compare to United’s remarkable 3-1 victory over Arsenal earlier this season, or the 42 other Premier League meetings between Wenger and England’s biggest club.
After Paul Pogba gave United a first-half lead, there were a few good natured choruses of “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay.”
After Henrikh Mkhitaryan equalized in the second half, there was a subdued party in the away end.
And there were similarly measured celebrations after Fellaini’s late winner.
But there were no outsize displays of adulation. There were no memorable unscripted tributes. There was no renewed fight in the Arsenal team. Wenger, with an eye on Thursday’s Europa League semifinal second leg in Madrid, rested many first-choice starters. United, until the final five minutes, played down to their level.
There was a thought that Wenger’s announcement would see the fan base’s infighting give way to a month of reflection, and that reflection would engender overwhelming appreciation. And in some ways, that has been the case. But two days after the news, there were still empty seats and boredom at the Emirates. Four days after that, there was atmosphere, but a classic Arsenal collapse.
There is still time. But over the first nine days of Arsene Wenger’s giant lap of honor, players haven’t raised their level; fans haven’t gone all out with their salutes and thank yous. Even a game at Old Trafford couldn’t inspire the club to snap out of its malaise. And the result was more deflation at the hands of a rival that, over the past 22 years, has inflicted plenty of it.
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