It may be no consolation for the 3,000 or so Manchester United fans who paid good money to travel to north London for the clash with Arsenal on Sunday, but Jose Mourinho’s warning that he was set to play a weakened side made his very first league loss to Arsene Wenger something of an inevitability.
The 2-0 reverse turned out to be no great surprise as a much-changed United XI went about their task well without ever really looking likely to return to Manchester with the three points. Yet in the context of United’s season this was no great setback.
Compared to the 3-0 caning Louis van Gaal’s United received in the corresponding fixture last season - at a time when the Red Devils arrived as league leaders - this was an inconsequential defeat in everything but the record books. United’s 25-game unbeaten run in the Premier League is over as well as Mourinho’s hold over Wenger, but the main focus for the season was simply underlined by the events of Sunday afternoon.
In making eight changes and handing league debuts to Axel Tuanzebe and Scott McTominay, Mourinho made good on his promise of prioritising the Europa League push for honours. With a string of key games in both the league and Europe having been negotiated in recent weeks and a packed schedule still to come, the Portuguese had little choice but to send out the reserves against Arsenal.
Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Juan Mata had played a total of four minutes’ football between them since March, while Tuanzebe was thrown in for his full debut at right-back and the increasingly peripheral Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial were also given starts.
Coming less than 72 hours after their 1-0 semi-final first-leg win away to Celta Vigo on Thursday, this was the right thing to do. Mourinho has been accused of failing to grasp the essence of being a Manchester United manager at times since his arrival last summer but his decision to prioritise silverware over the supposed achievement of finishing fourth in the Premier League is to be lauded.
Finishing the season with three trophies and a spot in the Champions League beats ending a campaign with some supposed moral victory at being the fourth-best team in the country, whether that also delivers a Champions League spot or not.
From the moment Granit Xhaka’s speculative effort from distance spun off Ander Herrera’s back and looped over David de Gea there was an inevitability about Arsenal wrapping up the win with a little to spare, but Mourinho will be forgiven for not being too concerned about the defeat.
With Tottenham, Southampton and Crystal Palace to negotiate in the final seven days of the Premier League season the chance of finishing fourth was always going to be slim anyway. At least in ensuring the likes of Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba were not taxed at the Emirates, Mourinho has increased United’s chances of succeeding in the Europa League.
There is no guarantee they will go on to win in Stockholm on May 24, but the calculated risk was one worth taking. A 2-0 loss to Arsenal will not define their season, however much Mourinho’s bragging rights have disappeared.