Tonight, United take on Arsenal at Old Trafford with the two teams polar opposites of each other. Arsenal, by all accounts, are flying it. 19 games unbeaten with Unai Emery looking like the man that should have been appointed five years ago. Further, they are fresh off a 4-2 victory in the North London Derby; a game they would have lost before having fell behind. In contrast, sadly, Manchester United look a team in decline, with a manager in decline. Jose Mourinho is now on borrowed time, and it is painful to watch. For me, my earliest memories of this great rivalry was Sylvain Wiltord scoring at Old Trafford to secure the title for the Gunners. I have been hooked ever since and this fixture was one I looked forward to: the Keane/Vieira clash in the tunnel, United ending their 49-game unbeaten run and the 8-2 annihilation at Old Trafford. Also, a word for Waterford man John O’Shea: who will ever forget that chip at Highbury? In spite of that, I am not looking forward to tonight. Jose Mourinho has sucked the enjoyment out of watching United for me. It would be wrong to lay all the blame at his doorstep, however. This morning, I spoke to Dale O’Donnell, editor of Stretty News, and James Sweeney, contributor to Red Devil Talk, to get their thoughts ahead of the game.
United have been so poor recently domestically. What the hell is going on?!
Dale: That is a question Jose Mourinho needs to ask himself. He’s the manager and he is not getting the best out of his players, and before anyone lays blame with them, I’d rather question his man management and levels of encouragement. These modern players don’t take to his harsh ways, though some have had to bite their lip and get on with it. Luke Shaw has done tremendously well in that respect but the manager is at fault when the vast majority look short on previous spells of form. It doesn’t help that Nemanja Matic walks into the team each week regardless of how poor he’s been playing.
James: The hierarchy of the club have decided to stick with Jose, for the time being at least, and the dressing room have seen this and decided to down tools. I honestly believe until Utd restructure and appoint a football/sporting director and replace the manager this situation will not improve. The rest of the “top six” all have this model in place we need to act fast.
Jose Mourinho has been quoted as saying it will take a ‘miracle’ to finish in the top four. What do you make of all that?
Dale: I think that was a heat of the moment comment and not a particularly helpful one. If Mourinho can’t get this bunch of players to believe in themselves, it’s time to go our separate ways. Top four is definitely achievable but it sounds like he has has given up.
James: He’s right, lets be honest. At this point, we look very poor in comparison to the teams we should be competing with. We lack organisation in defence and potency in attack, and only for our world class goal keeper, we’d be in even greater trouble. However, statements like this are starting to become commonplace at Jose’s press conferences of late and indicate, in my opinion, a desperation tactic to deflect from his managerial failings
Is the special one special no more? He looks like he has lost his magic.
Dale: Aye, unfortunately. I think we appointed a manager past his best. The issues we saw at the end of his second spell at Chelsea are re-emerging as he’s incapable of keeping piece and togetherness amongst his players. Still, it goes without saying, Mourinho was an incredible manager.
James: The special one was a brazen new kid who arrived and upset the older Wenger/Ferguson led generation who had dominated English football. It’s looking like the tables have been turned and he is now the old guard amongst this new younger breed of managers. In short: yes he has lost his magic; but I do see a bright future in international management for Mr Mourinho, his ability to set teams up for one off games is still one of his greatest talents.
In contrast, Unai Emery has rejuvenated Arsenal. What have you made of the Gunners thus far?
Dale: They’re unbeaten in 19 games, playing with bite and seem encouraged by Emery’s methods. The process of replacing Arsene Wenger should have happened a long time ago, but Arsenal fans won’t complain as they’ve supposedly found the right profile to lead them in a new direction. However, the biggest complement for Emery yet was the fight his players showed last weekend against Tottenham. That sort of performance become rare under Wenger.
James: I’m impressed by his ability to get them playing as a team, but its early days yet and there’s still a lot of rebuilding to do at the Emirates. He’s proving himself a good manager and from a sporting side, Mr Wenger seems to have had better input into choosing his successor than Sir Alex.
For me, my earliest memories of United are the great rivalry with Arsenal. What is your favourite memory of that rivalry?
Dale: Oh, I loved what this fixture meant back then. Like yourself, these were my earliest memories following United and they were special. The Battle of the Buffet stands out in October 2004, when United put a stop to Arsenal’s record-breaking unbeaten run of 49 matches. Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring from a penalty and Wayne Rooney finishing them off in the final minutes. That was a fiery encounter.
James: The acrimony and bad tempered nature of the Keane Vieira era will always live strong in my memory. However, I always was convinced somewhere in a high office in Old Trafford or Highbury, Arsene and Sir Alex shared a bottle of red and laughed about the rivalry while respecting the hell out of each other!
United have somewhat of an injury crisis in defence. What kind of team are you expecting to line out against Arsenal?
Dale: A dire one as Mourinho opens his book of excuses before kick-off.
James: Injuries to our defenders are one thing. However, not trusting certain defenders and in turn not giving them game time is a different story. I’m afraid the team sheet will reflect this and we could see another game with several players out of position.
What did you make of the reports that Mourinho labelled Paul Pogba ‘a virus’ after the draw with Southampton?
Dale: I don’t have much sympathy for Pogba and his performance against Southampton warranted a dressing down. He has to take responsibility for his performances, as a World Cup winner and as a player who cost the club almost £90m to bring back from Juventus. Jose Mourinho probably has a point here, though it’s an impossible task to build a siege mentality when your best players aren’t on the same page. It’s almost as if Mourinho is pissing in the wind.
James: It seemes to be a case of attack any player who might threaten your position as king of the back pages! It’s always about Jose Mourinho; except when they lose. It’s probably another great idea in the mind of Jose but for me, he’s just looking for excuses. Paul Pogba was poor against Southampton but so we’re a lot of players.
Finally, what is your score prediction?
Dale: If the North London derby is anything to go on, Arsenal will want this more than United and win. I’m going for a 2-1 loss for Mourinho’s men.
James: Given I still think he’s one of the all time great managers in terms of one-off games, it wouldn’t surprise me if we get a result against Arsenal. However, I doubt it. I’ll go with a 1-1 draw.