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  • Arsenal has a direction under Unai Emery and is unbeaten in 20 matches in all competitions, but Man United is somehow still seeking stable footing under Jose Mourinho–a sign that it's unlikely to come at all.
By Jonathan Wilson
December 05, 2018

Perhaps a 2-2 draw at home against an Arsenal side now unbeaten in 20 games isn’t such a bad result. But Manchester United is now 18 points behind league-leader Manchester City–which is to say, four more points than City dropped in the entirety of last season. There is no sense of progress, no sense that United is building towards something. Rather this was another staging post in Jose Mourinho’s long, slow walk out of Old Trafford.

There is a strange sense of stasis about United these days. United is ninth, and the gap to the top four is nine points. Its goal-differential is negative. Project out points won so far, and this will be United’s worst season in the Premier League era. The chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League are decreasing by the week, perhaps already so slim that there’s no sense in removing Mourinho, because a new manager wouldn’t be able to close the gap.

So why hasn't the board acted sooner? There are only three possible answers. The least likely is that United still believes in Mourinho and thinks he will turn it around. If that is the case, it is a triumph of faith, for there has been nothing on the pitch to suggest an upsurge is in the offing.

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Then there is the fact that if Ed Woodward has to admit he oversaw a mistake in the appointment of Mourinho, he will have failed three times to get the right man. It may be he feels a need to give Mourinho every chance. But perhaps most intriguing are the persistent rumors of a Saudi consortium lining up a bid for the club worth in excess of $4 billion. In such circumstances, perhaps a few million here or there doesn’t make difference. Investors like that are buying the history and image of the club and will assume that they will soon restore United to the top table. Why not let them appoint their own manager?

As United stagnates, Arsenal rises again, although after the euphoria of Sunday’s victory over Tottenham, the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford was perhaps a useful corrective. Remarkable as the transformation Unai Emery has overseen has been, it is still a work in progress.

It has become customary to read Mourinho’s team selections for hidden messages, just as Kremlinologists in the Cold War would spend hours poring over photographs of parades to see what lessons could be learned from the order in which the politburo stood. The message here, though, was clear enough: chaos. Mourinho made seven changes from the side that drew 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday, including the entire back five. Only two of those changes were enforced.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The most striking change was the decision to leave out Paul Pogba, which did nothing to dampen down the rumors that his relationship with his manager has hit a new low. Mourinho reportedly attacked his players even before kickoff on Saturday, calling them “spoiled” and followed that up afterwards by describing Pogba, who lost the ball 14 times during the game, a “virus.”

That perhaps contributed to an oddly disjointed start to the game. Both sides have had problems starting games on the front foot. It was Arsenal, though, that took the lead, as United’s vulnerability on set pieces was exposed once again. One of the few reliable aspects of this United side recently has been the form of David De Gea, but he was badly at fault as Shkodran Mustafi, getting in front of the slipping Chris Smalling, powered a header into the wet turf. It spun up and seemed comfortable for the goalkeeper, but it slipped through his hands and just crossed over the line before Ander Herrera could clear it out.

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Remarkably, for all the improvement in Arsenal, it still hasn’t been ahead at halftime in the league this season. Sure enough, four minutes after Mustafi’s goal, Anthony Martial fired in from close range as Herrera, who was probably a fraction offside, returned the ball to the center after Bernd Leno had parried Marcos Rojo’s free kick.

A scrappy first half gave way to a bizarrely open second. Alexandre Lacazette and Jesse Lingard exchanged goals seconds apart, both rooted in defensive errors, but it was all a bit too frenetic, too shapeless, to be of a particularly high quality. For Arsenal, playing a second huge game in four days, suffering a string of injuries on the night, it was perhaps excusable, particularly in Emery’s first season.

For United, it was simply another sign that, in his third season Mourinho has still not managed to impose his basic method on the side. Injuries haven’t helped, but neither have Mourinho’s constant changes of formation and personnel. The sense of drift goes on–and so does the end game. United is four games without a league win, and the wait for a decisive shift on the Mourinho saga goes on.

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