Arsenal have been here before… and we all know how it will end
Paul Hassall was at Old Trafford to see Arsenal's title challenge suffer a blow and ponders if it will be a case of déjà vu for Arsene Wenger's men.
Arsene Wenger's expression said it all. He's been here before, all too often in fact.
With just over half an hour played the face of the forlorn Frenchman loomed large on the staggered run of monitors adorning the Old Trafford pressbox.
For Gooners, it's the portrait that has said a thousand words... Dejection, fragility, frustration, despair - take your pick. It's the picture synonymous with a title challenge threatening to go up in smoke.
That same grimace and stern gaze was evident once more at the final whistle, but this time the Arsenal boss escaped the close-up of the media glare. He knew all too well that would come in the aftermath as the Press picked the bones of what could prove to be a demoralising defeat.
There's no hiding from it, this was a real low point for Wenger. He's suffered humbling losses at the home of United over the years, but so often it was against teams fighting for a title, a side that made the very prospect of a trip to Old Trafford daunting.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks dejected at the end of the gameReuters
This clearly wasn't the case here. Despite the vast sums of money spent by Louis van Gaal and the United hierarchy, this is an average Red Devils side and yet they deservedly took three precious points away from Wenger and co.
This time it was supposed to be different. Old Trafford was being talked up as a significant signpost, a marker where Arsenal illustrated the mental toughness of champions on a ground where they had not won since 2006.
But it wasn't and the questions will quite rightly be asked if Arsenal are going to implode once more.
The late Champions League collapse at home to Barcelona had been spun in a positive light. The inevitable exit would allow Wenger's men to focus on the league push, with Gooners desperate not to lose sight of the apparent momentum created by Danny Welbeck's last-gasp winner against leaders Leicester City.
The Foxes had responded to their Emirates agony with some last minute joy of their own, shrugging off a lacklustre display against relegation battlers Norwich City, to snatch a 1-0 win on Saturday. It was very much the hallmark of champions.
In contrast Arsenal came up short. They were expected to stay within touching distance against an injury-ravaged Manchester United, but as the half hour mark passed they were 2-0 down to a brace from a local lad who had become the fourth youngest player to start for the Red Devils in Premier League history.
The Manchester-based headlines will quite rightly go to Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old rookie whose four goals in two appearances this week have pretty much helped keep Louis van Gaal in a job (for another week at least...)
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)AFP
But in the greater context of this season's title race, and those of the past decade, there was an all too familiar feeling of déjà vu for Arsenal supporters. Definitive moments in a league season over the past 12 years have been more infamous for the beginning of a title meltdown rather than ones to rejoice and recall with nostalgic whimsy.
This 3-2 defeat was a tantalising and irritating microcosm of what they have come to expect. The initial wave of positivity was dampened by a 2-0 deficit, before the hope of Danny Welbeck's header. It was all poised for a second half fightback, but once more United were the hungrier side and restored their two-goal cushion. A peripheral Mesut Ozil pulled them to within sight of a rescue act, but the Gunners came up short once more.
Of course, the defeat is not fatal but there's no doubt it's a missed opportunity against a United team missing up to 11 players through injury. With Michael Carrick joining Daley Blind as a makeshift centre back partnership, Wenger opted for an attacking line up that ultimately failed to deliver.
The dramatic collapse in the title contests of yesteryear are all to easily recalled. Mention them to a Gunners fan and they visibly wince at the memory.
Arsenal's Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud look dejectedReuters
The mental fragility was never more tangible under the glare of the media lens as in February 2008 when a five-point lead evaporated at Birmingham amidst the beating of William Gallas' fists upon the St Andrews turf.
In 2009-10 and 2010-11 the challenges faded badly as the pressure intensified following the turn of the year, while a clash at Anfield in February 2014 was supposed to be the arena for the Gunners to show they were galvanised and ready to lay down a marker of their credentials.
On the eve of that encounter, this old scribe had the opportunity to interview Gunners legend Michael Thomas, where the ex-midfielder suggested it was time for Arsenal to realise their potential and mark the 25-year anniversary of his title-winning heroics in style.
That George Graham side of 1988-89 had achieved what many had deemed the impossible, by beating Liverpool 2-0 at fortress Anfield to pinch the championship from under the Merseysiders' noses. They had the mental toughness modern Arsenal were lacking, but Thomas was hoping for a watershed moment.
If ever there was a stark contrast over 25 years, what transpired in L4 in 2014 illustrated that the psychological ingredient Wenger has been missing from his teams since the Invincibles, was still elusive. Arsenal were dismantled before the world's eyes. Liverpool rampaged to a 5-1 success and it was the Luis Suarez inspired Reds who pushed Manchester City for the title, while Arsenal's ensuing run of just two wins nine saw them limp to a fourth-place finish.
The Arsenal of the past decade have had an innate ability to fall away at crucial points in a season. The win over Leicester a fortnight ago was supposed to be proof that a corner had been turned, but this loss at United shows they still have some way to go to convince their doubters - and themselves.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger at the end of the gameReuters
It could have been a massive week in terms of positives for Wenger and his players, but now it's hugely significant because the heat is on to keep the dream alive.
Leicester host West Brom on Tuesday night knowing a victory would put them a staggering eight points clear of Arsenal prior to the Gunners' clash at home to Swansea 24 hours later. It's must-win for Wenger and co and just the type of banana skin where they have let the jitters get the better of them in the past.
Fast forward to next weekend and it's conceivable that an in-form Tottenham, who showed real pedigree once more with a comeback success at home to Swansea, could hammer the most painful of nails in the coffin of Arsenal's challenge by taking much more than just bragging rights when they lock horns at White Hart Lane.
Wenger knows this is a crucial period, but recent history suggests he does not have the formula to address the decline once it starts to erode at his team's belief and confidence. The Frenchman had insisted they had the right mentality and the momentum to make the difference to their title hopes this time around, but the evidence isn't stacking up.
When asked in his post-match press conference what the defeat did for the title race, Wenger insisted that 'nobody knows' but that his team must 'comeback quick and strong.'
On this evidence the quality, nerves and desire he spoke about when outlining the requirements for the final push, were sadly lacking on all fronts.
And sadly for Arsenal fans that is something they have come to know all too well over the past decade...