Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho frustrated as six points slip through his grasp
Man United 1 Arsenal 1
Jose Mourinho's mentor, Sir Bobby Robson, had a favourite saying whenever he was asked what might have been. "If is the biggest word in football, son."
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. His last three matches at Old Trafford, against Stoke, Burnley and now Arsenal were games Manchester United had controlled. The first two they had utterly dominated. Their return had been three points.
Saturday's performance against Arsenal 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. Instead, his return was a 1-1 draw.
"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?" The answer to Mourinho's question was that United would be sandwiched between Arsenal and Tottenham in fifth. The climb would be 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 team. 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." The reality was that Olivier Giroud's 89th-minute equaliser was Arsenal's sole attempt on target.
On Sunday, they face West Ham, who have not won here 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 Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a weakened side.
"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 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," he explained. "I thought we would have space and the ball would arrive quite easily to the attacking players.
"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."
Man United: De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Darmian (Blind, 64 mins), Carrick, Herrera, Mata (Schneiderlin, 85 mins), Pogba, Martial (Rooney, 63 mins), Rashford. Unused subs: Romero, Lingard, Young, Memphis.
Arsenal: Cech, Jenkinson (Oxlade-Chamberlain, 83 mins), Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin (Xhaka, 79 mins), Elneny (Giroud, 73 mins), Ramsey, Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez. Unused subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Gabriel, Iwobi.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Juan Mata
Match rating: 7/10