The afternoon of September 11 must feel like a world away now for Manchester United. To recap, that was the day Cristiano Ronaldo came home and scored twice. The sun was shining on Old Trafford, metaphorically and literally.
United beat Newcastle 4-1, had 10 points from 12 and a squad that looked capable of a title challenge. Elsewhere that day Arsenal beat Norwich 1-0 at the Emirates, a result noticeable for being their first three points and first goal of the season. It lifted them out of the relegation zone after four games but they had become an irrelevance to United fans, a source of comedy rather than concern.
There’s not much to laugh about now. United’s season since what has turned out to be its high point has lurched from the supine to the shambolic. Now they are in danger of what could be the final indignity, losing their place in the top four to an Arsenal team that they should clearly be superior to.
Since that day in September United have won just 37 points from 23 games. It’s a desultory return for a squad with such obvious talent. Arsenal’s squad under Mikel Arteta is younger and hungrier, if not as talented, as was proved at Old Trafford in November on a going day for United, when they won a fine game 3-2.
Despite that defeat Arsenal have won 42 points from 20 games in the same period and they now live just two points behind United with three games in hand. To every observer, they are now the obvious favorites to finish fourth and take the final place in the Champions League.
United could have few complaints if that did happen and perhaps it would finally put a rocket under these players who continue to play with a sense of entitlement their performances don’t warrant. It’s easy to fight fire with fire at Leeds and Atletico Madrid, but a lot harder to do on a Saturday afternoon when Watford are the visitors. Manchester City and Liverpool don’t lower their intensity against lesser opposition because they embrace the demands on them. This squad has no desire to do the same.
They started brightly against Watford but missed early chances and then lost their way. A story that has been repeated this season. Ronaldo sums up that issue. If his first chance of him in a game goes begging he can become flustered and frustrated. Yesterday he hit the post early on and was abject after that. He looks like an aging center forward who is arguably not the answer for United this season, never mind next.
The problem for United now is that they’ve wasted what has been a fairly routine run of fixtures. Ralf Rangnick’s 13 league games in charge so far have featured opposition no tougher than West Ham at home and Aston Villa away, but they’ve won only seven of them. This was their best chance to make certain of a top-four finish.
Now United have 11 games left but they face the three teams above them in that run, including away games at Manchester City and Liverpool. There is also a trip to Arsenal, who must be sensing blood, as well as a home game against Tottenham. Arsenal’s run-in is an awful lot easier.
After an encouraging couple of weeks, with a battling win against Brighton, a good result in a hostile environment at Leeds and a very acceptable draw in Madrid, this felt like a chance for United to build some momentum. But momentum requires energy and aggression. United tend to presume momentum will come to them, but that’s not how it works.
Only twice this season have they won three league games in a row and they couldn’t equal that run against a Watford team who played like relegation was on the cards. But as Middlesbrough proved, even Championship teams don’t fear Old Trafford anymore.
United will hope to make Atletico Madrid fear it in the Champions League next month. On this evidence, they will need to savor that occasion, because the chances of the Champions League returning to Old Trafford next season are beginning to diminish.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.