Pre-match scenes before Manchester United lost to Arsenal suggest their decision is coming

Sir Dave Brailsford was sat in the directors' box before kick-off, engaged in a lengthy phone call. The conversation with Erik ten Hag should not take as long.

It is now 14 Premier League defeats this season and 19 overall. Manchester United are still eighth in the Premier League table, with a -4 goal difference and their worst defensive record since 1978-79. The midweek fixtures could confirm what would be their lowest finish since 1990.

Ten Hag can be grateful that this defeat was soundtracked to an atmosphere bordering on the carnival. The Premier League season is so inconsequential to United's followers that they are warming up for the FA Cup final a week on Saturday.

The elements were so biblical as full-time loomed the porous roof of the infamous Sir Bobby Charlton Stand will require reinforcing. Vitriol did not rain down on the United manager and players amid a respectable performance.

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There was an early rendition of, 'Oh United, we love you,' as if to reassure Ten Hag there would not be mutiny in the penultimate home fixture of the season. The airing of 'Spirit In The Sky' from the singing section just before the hour initially sounded like a song for United fans to drown their sorrows. It was rousing enough to contribute to a genuine opening that Alejandro Garnacho botched.

In one of his more productive roles at the club, Antony was an enthusiastic cheerleader, geeing up the tireless Garnacho on his 35th successive start. United fans defiantly chanted, "We'll never die," long before full-time. Ten Hag has their support - for 13 more days, at least.

Some still vented over the risk-aversive backward and sideways passing. The first half ended with Andre Onana, just short of the halfway line, despairing at the positioning of the forwards.

Excluding their stultifying stalemate with Manchester City, the only points Arsenal have dropped this calendar year were when City played the day before. There was such an edginess about this performance in the penultimate week of the campaign that Sofyan Amrabat neutered the tepid Bukayo Saka.

This was an old school 1-0-to-the-Arsenal. Results trump performances at this stage and Arsenal are a steelier side than the one that wilted this time last year. Their hoodoo of almost 18 years without a league victory at Old Trafford with a crowd present is over.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka kept checking over his shoulder for Leandro Trossard's whereabouts yet was still blindsided by the Belgian for the winning goal. Onana's kick was errant yet Casemiro trundled out from the area so slowly he might as well have been playing walking football.

Wan-Bissaka and Casemiro have to be near the front of the queue for the outgoings this summer. Ten Hag has not helped the former, switching him from right back to left back amid no improvement.

Casemiro's deployment at centre back was inexplicable. The raw Willy Kambwala was on the bench and Scott McTominay is more experienced from his stints there with club and country. Kambwala was eventually summoned to replace Jonny Evans,

Rasmus Hojlund, such a nuisance on his debut away to Arsenal in September, was a nonentity here. The Dane has hit the worst possible form at the worst possible time and was fortunate to stay on as long as 88 minutes.

Brailsford and Sir Jim Ratcliffe were inside Old Trafford five hours before kick-off, currying favour with prime minister-elect and Arsenal fan Sir Keir Starmer. Perched on one of the hospitality lounge's balconies, they could have been mistaken for vultures preparing for the kill.

Ten Hag summoned Kobbie Mainoo and Amad for pointers midway through the first half. The seniors required an earful, rather than the youngsters. In the 41st minute, Ten Hag pressed his fingers against his temples after the United backline allowed Kai Havertz, the furthest outfield player forward, to collect the ball from inside his own half. Referee Paul Tierney reprieved them as the free-kick had to be retaken.

Ten Hag's jovial demeanour at his pre-match press conference was discarded for the business of matchday. He started the match in the dugout but an Arsenal corner inside the first minute drew him to the technical area.

The United manager agonised over United's midfield positioning and had to demonstrate to Wan-Bissaka how to pass the ball in the final third. Amrabat dropped in between the centre halves to allow the full backs to venture forward. Diogo Dalot embarked on a purposeful charge that Trossard almost unwittingly finished.

Arsenal have played one game more than United in 2024 yet fielded an unchanged team for the fourth match running. United's was a throwback to the deliberately weakened sides Sir Alex Ferguson used to pick when the League Cup was an inconvenience.

Bruno Fernandes, billed as a near-certainty to return, was in the directors' box, flanked by the seldom seen Anthony Martial, visible in training last week but not this week.

This was Amad's first meaningful start for United and his first in 886 days. Many will have left Old Trafford wondering why the wait was so inordinate. The winger was energetic, direct and the only forward who truly unnerved Arsenal's defence.

Amrabat was back in a league line-up for the first time since December 17 and redressed the balance after the midfield mismatch of Mainoo and Christian Eriksen. That will raise the question as to why Amrabat has been ignored week after week when United's makeshift backlines have been constantly exposed. This was one of United's most compact performances against the team with the second-highest number in the goals-for column.

United defied belief to defeat Arsenal with ramshackle teams in recent memory yet this was never likely to be bracketed with the midfield of the Da Silvas, O'Shea and Gibson, the defensive trident of Smalling, McNair and Blackett or the defensive quartet of Varela, Carrick, Blind and Fosu-Mensah. United mustered two attempts on target and Onana kept the scoreline down with some agile stops.

Bookmakers had United at 8/1 to win after the teamsheets were published and it stretched to 20/1 at half-time. The odds on Ten Hag going may be shorter.