Manchester United must feel like an universe away from the afternoon of September 11th now. To recap, Cristiano Ronaldo returned home and scored two goals. Old Trafford was bathed in sunlight, both symbolically and practically.
United won 4-1 against Newcastle, finishing with 10 points from a possible 12 and a squad capable of a title challenge. On the same day, Arsenal defeated Norwich 1-0 at the Emirates, earning their first three points and scoring their first goal of the season. After four games, they had climbed out of the relegation zone, but they had become a laughingstock among United supporters, a source of amusement rather than concern.
There isn’t much to chuckle about these days. United’s season has gone from indolent to shambolic since what turned out to be its high point. Now they’re in risk of suffering the ultimate humiliation: losing their top-four spot to an Arsenal squad that they should clearly be superior to.
United has only won 37 points in 23 games since that day in September. It’s a disappointing showing for a team with so much potential. Arsenal’s roster under Mikel Arteta is younger and hungrier, albeit not as skilled, as they demonstrated at Old Trafford in November, when they won a terrific game 3-2 on a bad day for United.
Despite the loss, Arsenal has won 42 points in 20 games in the same time frame, and they are now only two points behind United with three games remaining. They are currently the clear favourite to finish fourth and win the Champions League final, according to all observers.
If it happened, United would have few complaints, and it could finally put a rocket under these players, who continue to play with an air of entitlement that their performances do not warrant. Fighting fire with fire is easy at Leeds and Atletico Madrid, but it’s a lot more difficult on a Saturday afternoon when Watford comes to town. Manchester City and Liverpool do not lessen their intensity when playing against weaker opponents because they welcome the challenges. This group has no inclination to follow suit.
They got off to a good start against Watford, but wasted early chances and eventually went off the rails. This is a storey that has been told several times this season. Ronaldo encapsulates the problem. If his first opportunity in a game is squandered, he may feel agitated and frustrated. He was abject after hitting the post early yesterday. He appears to be an older centre forward who is unlikely to be the answer for United this season, let alone next.
United’s problem today is that they’ve squandered what should have been a very straightforward run of games. Ralf Rangnick has won only seven of his 13 league games in command, despite facing opponents no stronger than West Ham at home and Aston Villa away. This was their greatest opportunity to secure a top-four finish.
United now has 11 games remaining, although they will play the three clubs ahead of them, including away games at Manchester City and Liverpool. There’s also a trip to Arsenal, who must be on edge, and a home match against Tottenham. Arsenal’s last stretch is a lot easier.
This looked like a chance for United to develop some momentum after an encouraging couple of weeks, with a tough win against Brighton, a good result in a hostile atmosphere at Leeds, and a very acceptable draw in Madrid. However, momentum necessitates both energy and violence. United has a tendency to assume that momentum will find them, but that is not the case.
They’ve only won three league games in a row twice this season, and they couldn’t match that against a Watford side that looked like relegation was on the cards. Middlesbrough, on the other hand, shown that even Championship teams no longer fear Old Trafford.
In the Champions League next month, United will try to make Atletico Madrid fearful. On this evidence, they’ll have to savour the moment, as the prospects of the Champions League coming to Old Trafford next season are dwindling.