Manchester United’s hopes and ambitions have slipped so alarmingly this season that a routine show of grit that left them eighth in the Premier League drew warm applause from Old Trafford at its conclusion.
Jose Mourinho’s side battled back twice to earn a point in an eventful, if scrappy, 2-2 draw against Arsenal – but was the sanguine reaction at the final whistle acceptance this is now as good as it gets under the current regime?
United are eight points adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea, 18 behind leaders Manchester City, and are the only team in the Premier League’s top nine with a minus goal difference.
They have taken only three points from their past four games, including draws with strugglers Crystal Palace and Southampton.
And while this was a performance that contained many admirable qualities when measured in grit and character, it showed no signs of being the early stage of development into a team that could claim the big prizes.
It still, however, drew a relatively satisfied response from a remarkably patient United fanbase, who would previously have accepted what they saw as the basic starting point, not the major plus.
Mourinho’s apparent confusion over his best team meant seven alterations to his starting line-up from Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Southampton took the number of changes in the Premier League this season to 46.
And credit must be given to the likes of Eric Bailly, who performed well, and fellow defender Diogo Dalot, who confirmed his promise. Mourinho was right to praise them.
But the brutal truth is, while Mourinho’s men were unquestionably fired up and there were flashes of former United and Arsenal clashes with the sight of flying footwear and prostrate bodies that would have been appreciated by heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury – who watched from the directors’ box, this was a night that will not linger long in the memory.
Painfully for United and Mourinho, he seems to now accept the obvious inferiority to Manchester City. This is even before he contemplates Liverpool’s clear superiority.
He said: “In the last four matches, we didn’t lose. Bad results? Yes – but four matches we didn’t lose. Before we lost against Manchester City, everybody loses.”
If not exactly defeatist talk, it is certainly the language of a manager having to lower his sights as never before.
And judging by the apparent satisfaction with a share of the spoils from an uninspiring display, many United supporters have joined him.