It is a moot point whether Arsenal fans have any right to make the claim that he is “not special any more” after what José Mourinho would describe as their specialising in failure years, but they know what needles Manchester United and their manager.
The home side have not been special enough this season, Mourinho has even begun blaming his success in the past for the raised expectations that are currently going unfulfilled at Old Trafford, and if United are back in the realms of the ordinary there is no longer anything special about this fixture other than its history. Arsenal looked at all times as though they would be happy with a point, and though they left it late that is what they took.
The story in short was that Mourinho dropped Wayne Rooney after claiming he has looked after pencils more carefully than England protect their internationals, and in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic through suspension Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial missed their chance to sharpen the United attack
The home side began well enough, with Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba and Rashford all making inroads down the right wing, but with no Ibrahimovic to aim for in the middle their attempted crosses were easily dealt with. United tried to do most of the attacking, Arsenal were content to merely keep possession much of the time, yet it was clear throughout that in Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil the visitors had players who could create something from nothing with a single feint or pass.
That is an ability United presently lack, and though Martial and Juan Mata did begin to show up a little more forcefully towards the end of the first half, as both forced saves from Petr Cech, when the score was unchanged after an hour Mourinho acquiesced to the Stretford End’s request and sent Rooney on.
The script now demanded that everyone’s favourite wedding gatecrasher would put a week of lurid headlines behind him by supplying the winning goal and perhaps Arsenal thought so too, for when Ander Herrera pulled a cross back from the right the defence tracked Rooney and left Mata expensively unmarked by the penalty spot. Still, Rooney had only been on the pitch for five minutes and not only had United made a breakthrough but Mourinho heard his name being enthusiastically chanted around the stadium.
Rooney did not quite manage to transform the game, it remained resolutely low key, though while United were winning he put himself about quite effectively, was hungry for the ball and might have claimed an assist for a second goal had Pogba managed better contact with a probing cross along the six-yard line.
Marcos Rojo should really have made the points safe from Daley Blind’s cross but missed the target with a free header at the far post, leaving United to cling on to their narrow lead. Despite Mourinho sending on Morgan Schneiderlin for Mata to try to lock up the midfield already containing Michael Carrick, they failed to manage it.
What does all this prove, apart from the suspicion that Arsène Wenger should probably seek to involve Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain earlier if he hopes to improve his shocking record against Mourinho teams in competitive matches? Arsenal will be encouraged by gaining a draw from an unpromising situation, and the old adage about champion teams picking up points when not playing well will most likely be wheeled out, though neither of these teams looked like champions.
Arsenal are going to have to do better than one attempt on target in 90 minutes to achieve their ambitions, and the possibility exists that a greater commitment to attack could have brought a greater reward. “In years gone by we might have lost this game,” Theo Walcott claimed afterwards, revealing a surprising timidity within the Arsenal outlook. The whole point about coming to Old Trafford these days is that this is not the United of years gone by.
Teams with title aspirations have to look at a defence containing Rojo and Phil Jones and try to exploit weaknesses. Even the notion that Carrick automatically improves United took a knock with the Arsenal equaliser. Initially it appeared that Carrick’s inclusion had successfully freed up Pogba and allowed Herrera to operate in a more advanced role, yet that impression faded quite early. United were left with the disappointment of a third successive home draw, achieved in almost exactly the same manner as the first of the sequence, when Stoke City claimed a late share of the points at the start of October.
“We have been dominating games, making an amazing number of chances, but from our last two home games we got just two points,” Mourinho said beforehand. Make that three points now from three home games. This time without the domination or the amazing number of chances. Nothing special, in other words, for all Mourinho’s protestations about luck.