Whenever Manchester United and Arsenal meet, you expect a quality game with plenty of excitement and open play. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but players on both sides seem to up their games for this one, though United’s stars more often in the last decade. Arsenal started brightly in this game at Old Trafford, but United quickly stole the momentum and created several half chances within the first minutes before the opener by Herrera from a cross by resurgent Ashley Young on 30 minutes. From here, United largely dominated the game, pressing high and attacking with verve. Arsenal went into the locker room down 1-0 and without a single shot on goal. The second half started much as the first with United in the ascendancy and the Gunners having trouble scrapping together more than three passes at a time.
Around the hour mark, Arsenal appeared to wake up and had several corners in quick succession, but their finishing was suspect for the second game running. In the 73rd minute, De Gea went off, for possibly the last time at Old Trafford, replaced by Victor Valdez – just as Wilshere and Walcott came on for Bellerin and Walcott (with Coquelin moving to right back). Arsenal were pushing hard for the equalizer, with Walcott marginally offsides with his first touch followed by a poor pass by Wilshere that led to a United corner. Walcott then gave up the ball two more times in quick succession and the Arsenal momentum seemed to temper considerably. Just when I was thinking Wenger had made the wrong move in a key game yet again, Walcott snatched a beautiful long pass, curled around Blackwell and scored on a deflection off the United defender who had come in less than ten minutes earlier (adjudged to be an own goal on 82’). Arsenal were suddenly rampant and had a couple of chance to pull ahead, with Giroud just missing the far post and then Smalling intervening on another chance for the Frenchman a minute later. Van Persie almost scored in the 88th minute off a nice header pass from Fellaini, but his shot was just high (it would have been his 4th for United in six games against his old club, but might very well be the last time we see him in red). Sanchez had a shot right at Valdez before being taken off in the 90th minute for Flamini, with five minutes of extra time still in the balance. Both teams had chances in that final flurry, but the game ended in a draw that was a better result for Arsenal in the race for third place.
Three thoughts on the game, as the season stands one week from its conclusion:
1. Young Renaissance Continues; Herrera Impresses: After 13 straight games without giving up a goal in the first half, Arsenal finally conceded, as Monreal left Herrera free behind him, where he was able to finish a nice lofted cross from Ashley Young. It was Herrera’s sixth of the season, on exactly six shots on goal! Bellerin, the surprise of the season according to Wenger (though Coquelin has to be strong competition for that title, given that most didn’t think he would ever play for Arsenal again), was beaten by a rejuvenated Young, reminding the youngster that he still has things to learn in his nascent career at the top level. And one could say that it again showed two players that have been key to United reentering the Top 4 – Ashley Young was rampant down the left and Herrera scored the goal and was impressive with his passing and defensive pressing throughout. One expects many changes at United in the offseason, with Van Persie, Falcoa, De Gea and the most expensive player in EPL history (Di Maria) all likely to go, but these two would be expected to return after real questions about both earlier in the season.
2. Sanchez Shrinking: there’s no getting around how important Alexis Sanchez has been to Arsenal in his first season with the club, scoring the only goal in a two leg battle with Besiktas that got them into the main draw of the Champions League, keeping them near the top during the injury crisis of the first half and having many game winners in their winning streak. But one thing he does need to work on is giving the ball away, particularly on the defensive end. In the first 13 minutes of the game, Sanchez gave the ball to United on five occasions, twice just outside the box leading to United chances and twice killing decent counters. As the game wore on, he continued to give the ball away through poor passes and over dribbling. No one can fault his effort, drive to win or finishing, but he does need to make slightly better decisions in some cases – mainly getting rid of the ball more quickly rather than constantly taking on two or three defenders (one of the biggest problems with Wilshere’s game, by the way) and improving his passing on the counter.
The same could be said of Giroud in this game, seemingly past his purple patch and looking a little off his best for the third or fourth game running, his first touch failing him, his movement out of sync, his pace failing him and his passing somewhere between poor and abject (in line with the rest of the team). Even given that form, he was a fine De Gea save away from equalizing in the 62nd minute, after tracking back to snag an Ozil cut back that was behind him and almost put Arsenal ahead on 84 minutes with a shot that was just wide of the far post. He may need a rest before the FA Cup final in a fortnight.
3. Wenger United Woes Waning: Arsenal have won only one of the last 12 in the league against United, at the heart of the critique of Wenger over the past decade. And it is not just losing, but the inability to play their best in the biggest games. Even when United is struggling, they still seem to find a way to get the best of Arsenal, as they did in both games last year. This year, Arsenal have shown some new resolve, beating United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup and City 2-0 in an impressive display; as well as beating Liverpool soundly. But even in the positive 2015, they lost to Southampton on New Years Day, to hated Tottenham 2-1 at White Hart Lane, could only draw 0-0 with Chelsea at the Emirates and blew a very winnable tie against Monaco by losing the first leg 3-1. When Arsenal are playing poorly, they give up the ball too often, try to beat defenders dribbling and send imprecise passes past charging players. It is often the case that pressing them can break up their momentum and cause them to then look shaky on the defensive end. United was playing that strategy to perfection, but hadn’t kept a clean sheet for 7 games, and that continued in this game – as Arsenal played much better over the final 30 minutes, getting the equalizer and unlucky not to claim the victory. The draw all but sewed up third place for Arsenal (who only really need a point from their final two games, barring a United scoring explosion in their finale) and means that the Gunners can avoid the perilous and early season interrupting two-leg qualifying round next August.
Overall, Arsenal will be disappointed to lose out at a strong chance at second place by drawing with Chelsea, losing to Swansea and drawing with United after a long winning streak, but can take some gratification in besting their great rivals twice on the road in four months and moving up to third place for the first time since 2012, while still having the FA Cup final to contest in two short weeks. Manchester United will also feel bittersweet content in meeting the minimum goal for next year – ensuring a Top Four finish and return to the Champions League – though this will be the second year running without any silverware to a team that had become rather accustomed to it over the past two decades. They will be worried, I assume, about the goalkeeping situation, with De Gea looking likely to leave and the recognition that he is probably the single most important reason they will finish above Liverpool this season. And more changes appear in the offing for a team still in post-Fergie transition. But as Seneca once said, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. New beginnings are on offer for both teams next season, along with the other 18 Premier League Teams.