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.
Where is Man Utd’s quality?
Mourinho made two huge selection calls in leaving out his biggest signings – Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku.
He wrote in his programme notes: “There isn’t space for people who are not ready to give their all.”
There is no suggestion he specifically meant these two players, who cost £89m and £75m respectively, but the message had been sent.
It was a brave call by a manager who knew his strategy was high-risk, especially had United lost, although it was hardly a glorious advert for the success of his major purposes.
Pogba is simply too erratic while Lukaku cuts a bulky, muscular figure seemingly robbed of the explosive qualities that were his trademark.
Even goalkeeper David de Gea is having an erratic season by his standards, having to redeem himself with several fine saves after an awful attempt to deal with Shkodran Mustafi’s tame header for Arsenal’s first goal.
What was not in doubt was the commitment of United’s players. They were, despite all the noise swirling around Mourinho, playing for their manager.
No-one can doubt the honesty and character. Those who forged a draw against a team unbeaten in 20 matches gave their all.
The problem in the wider context is this United squad is nowhere near good enough when measured against the best.
United’s attack has fluidity in Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, but this is a stodgy side producing stodgy performances.
The fact this was regarded as a reasonable improvement on recent offerings, despite another draw, is a commentary on United’s season so far.
How long will patience last?
Every game carries high stakes for United and Mourinho now – but there are no signs of uprising among the fans.
The team cannot afford to falter against struggling Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday, but they can at least travel to Valencia for their final Champions League group game with qualification for the knockout phase assured.
It is then that Mourinho faces what amounts to the acid test when he visits a familiar proving ground – the Anfield home of long-time adversaries Liverpool on 16 December.
If he can somehow fashion a result there against a side unbeaten in the league this season, it might maintain some of the old belief in Mourinho’s powers. A defeat might just test the patience he is being shown.
But, for now, Mourinho and United’s supporters appear to have reluctantly accepted their ‘B-List’ status.
VISIT: BBC SPORT