When Arsene Wenger finally beat Jose Mourinho for the first time in 16 competitive meetings last May, it was a hollow victory. Manchester United had folded in their pursuit of a top-four finish and put all of their eggs in the Europa League basket. Their 2-0 defeat at the Emirates was virtually a dead-rubber, sandwiched between both legs of a semi-final clash with Celta Vigo.
Mourinho made eight changes and couldn’t have looked any more relaxed in his post-match interviews, breaking a smile as he rolled out his take on events. His focus was entirely on silverware, or "titles" as he had suddenly taken to calling them. Even Wenger, with an FA Cup final on the horizon, felt no need to portray the win as anything more than three points in a forlorn pursuit of fourth place.
There’s no doubt Mourinho’s rotation was worthwhile at the time, but the biggest consequence of that defeat potentially arrives now. For the first time since the Portuguese returned to these shores in 2013, Wenger gets to prepare for a match against him without the world drawing attention to the fact he has never beaten him. It’s only a small thing. To the mood-fixated Frenchman, though, it will feel like an advantage. A hold has been broken.
If anything, the narrative now turns on Mourinho and his undesirable away record against the rest of the top six. In seven attempts, United have taken only three points and mustered one goal from a paltry 16 shots on target. Drag the timescale back to Mourinho’s turbulent end at Chelsea and it’s one goal in 10 matches, just 23 shots on target.
Given the complexion at the top of the table, with Manchester City sitting on an eight-point lead and heading to Old Trafford next weekend, it might be dangerous to blindly assume this game follows with the general pattern in that sample, whereby Mourinho parks the bus and hopes to profit from a set-piece or a moment of individual brilliance.
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It’s only December, but already it feels like draws are no good. The trouble is, if United wish to start approaching games of this magnitude with a bit more adventure, they have little valuable experience to draw upon. In the 1-0 defeat by Chelsea last month, they started with good intentions but failed to force an early breakthrough and soon slipped back into their old habits.
Besides, if United do adopt a more expansive approach, it would be a game played on Arsenal’s preferred terms, especially in their current mood. The Gunners have hit a purple patch - only Manchester City boast a better shot ratio over the past two months - and they will doubtless favour an open game with two elite performers in their ranks, compared to United’s one.
Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were too hot for Tottenham to handle a fortnight ago and the German playmaker had a breather at Burnley last weekend before returning to destroy leggy Huddersfield 5-0 in midweek, as Arsenal racked up a 12th consecutive league victory at the Emirates - the longest winning streak on home soil in the Premier League for 12 years.
Paul Pogba has made a big difference to United since returning against Newcastle, with the Red Devils immediately reverting to their September form by hitting four goals in two of the next three league outings, including Tuesday’s rousing 4-2 success at Watford. But now the initial shot of adrenaline has subsided, he might not be in prime condition for a game of this intensity.
Arsenal to beat Manchester United at 6/4