Arsene Wenger was honoured by Manchester United on his final visit to Old Trafford as Arsenal manager, but left beaten once more on the field as Marouane Fellaini‘s stoppage time header handed the hosts a 2-1 win.
Wenger was greeted by former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and current manager Jose Mourinho before kick-off and even presented with a glass momento.
However, the Frenchman was left empty-handed when it came to points as defeat left sixth-placed Arsenal mathematically out of the race for a top-four finish.
Fellaini rose highest to flick home the winner after Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s second-half strike against his former club had cancelled out Paul Pogba’s early opener.
United have now sealed their place in the Champions League next season and move closer to their target of finishing at least second best to champions Manchester City by opening a five-point gap on Liverpool.
Ferguson told the United website ahead of the game that his clashes for many years with Wenger’s strongest Arsenal sides over a decade ago “made the Premier League.”
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 29, 2018
But it was a sign of how far Arsenal have fallen that Wenger made eight changes from the side that drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday as he had already given up hope of a top-four finish.
Alexis Sanchez became the latest of a number of leading Arsenal players to leave towards the end of Wenger’s reign in search of more success and more money in January.
And in his first appearance against his former club, the Chilean was heavily involved in the opening goal on 16 minutes.
Romelu Lukaku picked out Sanchez at the back post and after his header was deflected onto his own post by Hector Bellerin, Pogba had the simple task of tapping into an unguarded net.
Wenger included club record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, who was the makeweight for Sanchez to move in the other direction, among a side littered with youngsters.
But it was the visitors who posed the greater threat for the remainder of a soporific first 45 minutes.
Mkhitaryan dragged a shot from the edge of the box just wide before Aubameyang’s tame header was too close to David de Gea.
United suffered a blow at the start of the second period when Lukaku limped off to be replaced by Marcus Rashford.
And the hosts soon also lost their lead when Mkhitaryan pounced on some slack United defending to fire across De Gea into the bottom corner to muted celebrations despite enduring a troubled 18 months under Mourinho before joining the Gunners.
United struggled to create in their search for a winner, but Arsenal failed to heed their warning when Rashford was denied by the offside flag after Fellaini’s header came off the post a minute from time.
Moments later Fellaini rose highest once more to meet Ashley Young’s cross and the Belgian’s looping header found the far corner to leave Arsenal still without a point away from home in the Premier League this year.
Provided by AFP Sport
Paul Pogba sidefooted the hosts ahead after Alexis Sanchez’s header had been blocked. But the man who replaced the Chilean at the Emirates restored parity in the second half, Henrikh Mkhitaryan marking his return to Manchester with a fine strike to make it 1-1.
Marcus Rashford had a late goal chalked off for offside, but Fellaini won it in stoppage time when he headed in Ashley Young’s cross.
Lukaku’s link-up play overlooked
Romelu Lukaku was brought in during the summer for one thing – to score goals. And despite all the detractors, it’s hard to argue that he’s been anything but a roaring success.
Twenty seven goals in 50 games in all competitions. His best tally in a single Premier League campaign. Enough said.
What isn’t talked enough about though is the big Belgian’s prevalence for playmaking. He has recorded seven assists in the Premier League this season, which is joint sixth, alongside the likes of such crafty technicians as Willian, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
It’s an underrated tool in the striker’s repertoire that was evident as United took the lead in eye-catching style at Old Trafford. Lukaku won’t get the credit his quality cross deserved as Pogba hooked home when Sanchez’s goal-bound header fell for him after taking a wicked deflection off Hector Bellerin.
It adds to clever assists dotted throughout a campaign in which his lack of ball control and often comedic first touches actually bely some sumptuous skill and interplay.
His crossing, meanwhile, has been superb. The deep, arching ball from the right flank that teed up Rashford for a consolation goal in an otherwise miserable team performance in October’s 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield was sublime – in turn highlighting why his diligent runs into the channels have been such a welcome change from the static play offered by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Herrera’s form leaves a question mark over constant substitutions
Ander Herrera finished the game with the fourth-most passes of all players on the pitch and third-highest pass accuracy – he was taken off with 26 minutes remaining.
Jose Mourinho will escape criticism because his replacement in midfield, Fellaini, grabbed the winning goal the hosts just about deserved.
The 2016/17 United player of the season’s absence this term has been baffling, although largely explained by Nemanja Matic’s summer arrival and subsequent seamless transition into United’s midfield.
Pogba’s patchy form and Mourinho’s constant tinkering with the midfield in order to try and fit the Frenchman in and get the best out of his star has been frustrating for United fans to watch. And it’s been to the detriment of the combative Spaniard’s game time.
He’s been thrust into the limelight of late, returning to both feature and form in United’s last six games.
But like compatriot Juan Mata, he is often the first player brought off. That thinking with Mata is more understandable; he’s not incredibly blessed with pace or stamina, while he is sacrificed when Mourinho wants to speed up his attack.
But Herrera is a bundle of energy and has upped his attacking contribution – the one part of his game that has been sorely lacking this season – since returning to favour.
Wenger leaving a better legacy than perhaps expected
The words ‘Arsene Wenger’ and ‘youth development’ used to reap huge reward during the Frenchman’s early, sunnier days at Arsenal.
But whereas the next generation has floundered rather than flourished in his twilight years at the club, there was enough evidence here of some young talents at the Emirates worth developing by his successor.
The last time Wenger overloaded his starting 11 with promising youngsters on a visit to Old Trafford, Arsenal suffered arguably the most humiliating result in the Frenchman’s two decade-long tenure, trounced 8-2.
Carl Jenkinson looked hopelessly out of his depth that day and was sent off. Armand Traore never played for the Gunners again and now can’t get a game at Championship Cardiff City, where he is on loan from Nottingham Forest.
Many would argue Francis Coquelin – now at Valencia – has barely progressed while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who made his debut off the bench that fateful day, is now flourishing at Liverpool, having failed to progress under Wenger.
So when four of the names on the teamsheet showed ages of 21, 20, 20 and 18, there were more than a few eyebrows raised.
But they more than held their own. Konstantinos Mavropanos performed admirably in the heart of the visiting defence, Ainsley Maitland-Niles continued to show flashes of his promise, while Reiss Nelson had a pass accuracy percentage of 95 2.
Wenger may be leaving but Arsenal could be due a return on their promising youth.
And with the season coming to an end, Antonio Conte knows how difficult it is to keep the pressure on Spurs and find a way to enter the top-four.
So what is Chelsea’s plan to overtake Tottenham – who have a game in hand – in the table? Conte shares his thoughts below …