"For me there are five trophies every season: Premier League, Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League," Arsene Wenger told a room full of Arsenal shareholders and some media representatives in 2012. "The fourth is the FA Cup and then the League Cup."
Wenger certainly practiced what he preached. During the last decade, his club had an iron-grip on the "Top Four" trophy. Ever since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal in the summer of 2005, the team he once captained to multiple trophies has never finished higher than third, and has finished fourth six times (2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13, and 2013-14). In fact, if you Google the phrase "fourth place trophy," the top results all refer to Arsenal, including this hilarious locker room celebration at the end of the 2012-13 season.
Move over Arsene. This year, Manchester United will, in all likelihood, take home the "prestigious" fourth place trophy after a 1-1 draw on Sunday against perennial holders Arsenal. After last year's nightmare, finishing in the top four was United's number one priority this season. Turns out, United qualified for the Champions League with plenty of room to spare, easily outdistancing Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. By that metric, this season was a rousing success.
On the other hand, finishing fourth is still a tough pill to swallow. Indeed, after beating Man City last month, United would have been a good bet to finish third or even second. Instead, a run of three losses in a row left United, more or less, locked into that fourth slot. Now, United will face a qualification tie in August (at a time when players aren't necessarily in top form and the team will probably have several new players to integrate, including, potentially, a new goalkeeper).
Against Arsenal on Sunday, it was more of the same. United had 57% possession but only generated four shots on target (Arsenal managed three despite playing in their own half for much of the match). Other than Ander Herrera's volley to make it 1-0, United failed to generate any real chances on goal. Once again, most of United's passing was mostly confined to the center of the pitch and they rarely got behind Arsenal's well-organized defense. In fact, it was like watching a bizarro-Manchester United vs. Arsenal match with Arsenal staying behind the ball and looking to counter-attack. Indeed, despite the lack of penetration, United still outplayed Arsenal and, arguably, deserved to win. If it weren't for Theo Walcott exploiting that deer-in-the-headlights also known as Tyler Blackett, United probably grinds out the 1-0 win and fails to clinch the fourth-place trophy, at least for another week.
The game was also notable in that it was most likely Radamel Falcao's final Old Trafford appearance as a member of United (he even waved goodbye to the fans after he got pulled for van Persie in the second half). It could also have been David de Gea's farewell. This year's stalwart, de Gea had played every single minute of United's season, thus far. But after taking a bad fall while trying to punch the ball away, de Gea finally had to give way for Victor Valdes, and United fans got a glimpse of what life might be like without Super Dave between the posts. Valdes was blameless for the goal, but it wasn't lost on those watching that United conceded on the first shot it faced after de Gea left. Could it be a portent of things to come?
After last year, qualifying for the Champions League is a tremendous accomplishment. Let's hope the team doesn't rest on its laurels, though, or start to accept fourth place as the status quo. Otherwise, these funny images will all be replaced with ones featuring United players and managers.