As top-four hopes fade, depths of Man United post-Ferguson malaise revealed
LONDON -- It is four years on Monday since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement as Manchester United manager, so it is perhaps appropriate that the anniversary was marked with a clash against Arsenal -- the biggest and most enduring threat during his two decades of success at Old Trafford.
The fact it was two clubs struggling to recapture the glories of their past, of the best days of Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, was by no means an insignificant thread in the narrative.
On the face of it, United are on the brink of a major European final and have already won a trophy this season in the shape of the EFL Cup, but do not let the facts distort the reality of the club's current situation, and the one Jose Mourinho must address if he is to end the post-Ferguson malaise that has set in since the Scot walked away.
United, for the third season out of four since Ferguson left, are set to finish outside the top four in the Premier League after this 2-0 defeat at the Emirates left them four points adrift of the Champions League positions with three games to play.
By winning the game, with second-half goals from Granit Xhaka and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal not only reignited their fading hopes of a top-four finish, they also gave themselves real hope of finishing above United once again -- a position they have claimed in every season in the post-Ferguson era.
Arsenal's favourable run-in, against a quartet of teams with nothing left to play for, means Wenger can still salvage Champions League qualification, and another FA Cup win, from a hugely disappointing season, but there are clear problems to be resolved in every department of his squad, regardless of where Arsenal finish and what they end up with.
And the same applies to United, something that was hammered home by the manner of their performance and defeat at the Emirates.
With Thursday's Europa League semifinal second leg against Celta Vigo still be negotiated, Mourinho stuck to his promise of wholesale changes by resting eight men from last Thursday's first-leg victory in Spain.
So he turned to fringe players and youngsters -- Axel Tuanzebe made his Premier League debut from the start and Scott McTominay had six minutes as a late substitute -- and the lack of depth in Mourinho's squad was striking.
And this is where the Ferguson anniversary carries even greater significance, in that the squad that United now have bears the scars of four years of upheaval and poor decision-making. It is a squad put together by four managers -- Ferguson, Mourinho, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal -- and Mourinho would happily get rid of at least half of them.
He has made his feelings about defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling pretty clear in recent weeks, but he had no option but to use the pair at centre-half -- their first appearances for two months -- due to his determination to rest Daley Blind and Eric Bailly.
In midfield, Wayne Rooney performed like a man running out of time, and legs, with Anthony Martial doing little or nothing up front to persuade Mourinho that the French forward is worth persevering with.
Mourinho's team has been hit hard by injury, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw all out for the season, while Marouane Fellaini missed this game because of suspension.
But his team at Arsenal, nonetheless, resembled a group of players auditioning for prospective new employers rather than staking their claim for a long future at the club, with the exception of Tuanzebe, 19, who excelled up against Alexis Sanchez.
They were flat and unambitious, barely mounting any sustained pressure against an average Arsenal team, and they even surrendered their 25-game unbeaten Premier League record -- a milestone that has been the least spectacular unbeaten run in living memory.
United did manage to extend one sequence, though. By failing to score, they maintained their dismal run of failing to register a goal away from home against any of the current top six this season. They have one more chance, at Tottenham next week, to end that sorry record, but Mourinho is promising once again to rest players at White Hart Lane, insisting after this defeat that it will be "impossible" for his team to now finish in the top four.
"That's a decision," Mourinho said. "We want to try to win the Europa League -- it's more important than finishing fourth. For us, that is now impossible."
If United win the Europa League, Mourinho's approach will be justified, but it is a sign how far the club has fallen post-Ferguson that they are now prepared to travel to Arsenal and rest players, with everything riding on the lottery of a cup competition.
United never finished outside the top three in the Premier League under Ferguson, but they haven't finished in it without him.
If this is what the future looks like after a long-serving manager vacates the scene, it is little wonder that Arsenal are so nervous about life without Wenger.
United are still coming to terms with their loss and Mourinho is not even halfway towards getting the club back to where they believe they belong.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_