* In the build-up to Sunday’s match at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal both spoke of the need to make a statement regarding next season’s ambitions. Against a top four rival, this was an opportunity to put down a marker.
“We feel we have made progress,” said Wenger. “But we have a good opportunity to show that on Sunday because in every game that is questioned. That is what is at stake until the end of the season, to show that we can be stronger next year.”
If that was the intention, it fell spectacularly short. United dominated the first half and Arsenal had decent spells after the break, finishing stronger. However, both teams were assisted more by the other’s deficiencies than through their own excellence.
As an indicator of just how easy both sides seemed to take the match, there was no yellow card issued until Ander Herrera cynically broke up play in stoppage time. Imagine such a scenario in the days of Neville vs Reyes, Keown vs Van Nistelrooy and Keane vs Vieira. Given the air of ‘just not quite’ to both clubs’ seasons, the apparent lack of desire to push home any advantage seemed odd, and was disappointing.
The instant retort is that this was a nothing game with very little to play for. That’s partly true, but this game was only meaningless because both teams were so far behind Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea with two games left. The immediate conclusion from Manchester United vs Arsenal: Chelsea will take some catching next season.
* Van Gaal used his programme notes to reiterate that his is a mission only partly accomplished. United are not a club for whom a top four finish is enough. They have finished behind neighbours City for the second season in a row for the first time in 37 years.
‘I know for a club of this stature that finishing fourth in the Premier League is not something to celebrate,’ Van Gaal wrote. ‘But I hope you will agree that it is a step in the right direction to getting this club back to competing at the highest level, both domestically and in European competition.’
That’s true, and further improvement is needed if Van Gaal is to be given another rumoured £150m transfer budget this summer. Make a serious title challenge next season, finishing in the top two and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals. Win the title in 2016/17. Those must surely be the realistic aims?
* The game started in bitty fashion, with neither side able to enjoy possession for more than 10 or 15 seconds at a time. United soon moved onto the front foot, however, with Juan Mata’s reverse ball putting Radamel Falcao through for the first chance of the game. Nacho Monreal got back to block the Colombian’s shot from a tight angle. From the resultant corner, Chris Smalling also had a shot blocked, this time by Hector Bellerin.
Arsenal then fell into a rut, completely unable to hold onto the ball. They seemed to lack all confidence in their own game, too often launching the ball into the channels for Olivier Giroud to run onto. That’s far from his strong point. The first half almost completely passed Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil by, the pair completing 19 passes between them in 45 minutes.
Sanchez in particular struggled, appearing fatigued and wholly unable to influence play. The Chilean prides himself on being the livewire in Arsenal’s side, hounding the opposition in possession and dictating play. Sanchez completed six passes in the first half, and had as many touches of the ball as David Ospina. He won possession just four times, but lost the ball on 11 occasions before the break.
* Has a player’s career ever been more perfectly summed up in a few seconds than by Phil Jones’ desperate crawl across the Old Trafford turf in an attempt to clear the ball?
Had Jones been told that the survival of humanity depended on him doing a passable impression of a manatee caught out of the water? As he tried to keep up with Giroud despite being unable to use his legs, all the gurns were on show. Jones looked like a one-man hall of mirrors.
That he eventually headed the ball away four inches from the ground deserves applause, but Jones has taken over the mantle of United’s kamikaze defender. Before United took the lead there was a mix-up between him and David de Gea that almost ended in calamity. He must give Van Gaal sleepless nights.
* When the opening goal came, it was as a result of United’s new tried and tested formula. Marouane Fellaini picked up the ball close to the half-way line, laying it off to Ashley Young on the left wing before moving towards the penalty area.
The stereotypical move would be a Young cross for Fellaini to head home, but instead the cross found Herrera at the back post. The control on his finish was superb, giving Ospina no chance.
Another point to make on the goal was the presence of Fellaini in the area. Nacho Monreal probably deserves blame for not sticking with Herrera, but the left-back was put off by the Belgian’s onrushing presence. Monreal made the move to go towards Fellaini rather than stick to task, thus creating the room for Herrera to finish.
“We know what Fellaini’s strengths are,” Wenger said after the game. Strangling them is a different thing entirely.
* Some people hate diving. Others hate the waving of imaginary cards, muted celebrations or players swapping their shirts at half-time. But is there any greater annoyance than the melodramatic gesticulating of Mike Dean?
The old cliché with referees is that if you haven’t noticed them they have done a fine job, but Dean attempts to turn this on its head. Every decision is met with an over-acted point or mouthing of words. He is part West End actor, part camp sergeant major.
The Venn diagram of referee and showman contains mercifully little shared ground. Dean uses what small space there is in the crossover to march around, showing yellow cards whilst raising his eyebrows and loudly chastising players.
Some goalkeepers favour the camera save; Mike Dean has mastered the camera booking.
* Chris Smalling, Manchester United captain. That sentence may sound incongruous, but the truth is that in the absence of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick, Van Gaal was left with very few alternatives.
On Sky Sports before the match, Michael Carrick praised Smalling for his improvement: “He’s really developed in the last few months and become more vocal, a leader in the back four.”
That view was shared by Van Gaal, albeit in slightly odder fashion. “I have watched him,” the Dutchman said. “I have observed him. I shall always name my captain as a human being, because I have principles of being a human being. It is not just who passes from A to B, but how they deal with fellow players. Is he a leader of the defence? He is more of a leader than any other player.”
It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of Jones, however. Is it too much to suggest that he may have suffered a loss of status with his manager’s call?
One thing is true: You’d have got decent odds on Smalling captaining United in the Premier League this season after his red card against Manchester City in November, a performance labelled “stupid” by Van Gaal. There has since followed a dramatic improvement.
* If Arsenal lost their way in the first half, it was United’s turn to fall short after the break. Gone was the pressing and harrying of the opponent with the ball. Gone was the neat passing from defence through to midfield. Gone was the link-up between Fellaini and Young. That partnership is now one of the most crucial elements of United’s success – imagine that a year ago.
After the match Wenger described it as “Arsenal’s engine taking over”, but that’s a little rose-tinted. What was clear is that more runners from midfield were able to get beyond Giroud, allowing for attacking moves rather than fragmented and disconnected ventures into Manchester United territory.
* But when Arsenal’s big chances came, they were wasted by Giroud. Aaron Ramsey played Ozil down the left wing, the German finding the French striker with his pull-back. Giroud was stretching for his shot, but scuffed it from six yards out and allowed De Gea to make the save with his foot.
The Frenchman was also found five yards out to the left of goal from another pull-back; this time he fired the ball against the side netting. Both were presentable opportunities, and both passed up. That’s the difference between one point and all three.
This was an afternoon to extend Giroud’s poor record against the biggest teams. In the last three seasons, he has scored seven goals in league matches against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool. Seven goals in 26 games. You can blame service for some of those woes, but it’s a record that just isn’t good enough for a title-winning team.
Giroud’s place within Arsenal’s first-choice team may well be protected simply through the paucity of available alternatives, but that doesn’t change my conclusion. Arsenal will not win the title with him as their first-choice front-line striker.
* Two minutes after Giroud’s first scuffed chance, he was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty. Cazorla’s corner was swung in from the right, and Smalling tugged firmly at Giroud’s shirt in the box. It was a foul that looked so obvious because the Frenchman’s shirt was pulled right up to his neck, revealing a navy blue undershirt that jarred against the yellow of his teammates in the area.
Of course it’s a cliché, but Smalling really was asking the referee to make a decision. Thankfully, we were saved the Mike Dean crouch and point to the spot. I think I’d have exploded with anger.
* Have we seen the last of De Gea in the Premier League? The Spaniard was substituted with a calf injury with 15 minutes remaining, allowing Victor Valdes to make his debut for the club.
The chants from the Old Trafford stands told their own story. For all the business United do this summer, none would be more valuable than keeping hold of arguably the second finest goalkeeper in the world. United fans sung his name as their final, heartfelt demand for De Gea to stay.
Van Gaal’s words on Saturday will not have filled fans with confidence. “We want him to sign but he has to want to stay here at Manchester United,” the Dutchman said. “I don’t know why he has not made the decision. We know who already shall be the next goalkeeper. We have a list of goalkeepers who can replace him because we have to be organised also, not only for that position but every position. We want him to stay so hopefully he shall sign.”
On commentary, Gary Neville reflected the mood, speaking of Real Madrid’s famed aggression in the transfer market. As uncomfortable as it is to hear, De Gea would have signed a new deal by now if he was staying.
* When Arsenal’s equaliser finally came, it contained elements of both quality and fortune. The former came courtesy of a superb cross-field pass from Ramsey out to substitute Theo Walcott on the right wing, allowing the winger (or striker, if you ask him) to take the ball in stride and past Tyler Blackett.
Then came the good luck, Walcott’s low cross deflecting off the boot of Blackett and beyond Valdes in the United goal. The goalkeeper had conceded his first United goal before even facing a shot.
Neville insinuated on commentary that Valdes could be at fault for the goal, having gone to ground very early and seen the ball loop past him. I’d reject that notion completely.
Whilst Walcott can only claim an assist for the goal, it must have felt good to finally make an impact on Arsenal’s season. “I just need more minutes really,” Walcott said. “As a substitute you need to be positive. It was a great result today. It’s always tough coming back but I feel part of the squad. The manager’s been patient with me. I feel like I’m getting stronger and quicker.”
“Patient” is one word for Wenger’s use of Walcott recently, but ‘virtually non-existent’ is a more apposite phrase. Walcott will hope that he merits a start at home to Sunderland on Wednesday, or he must surely consider a drastic change to his bit-part role?
* Given one final chance to impress by Van Gaal, Falcao’s audition went about as well as the ones before. He looks shot of confidence and short of all noticeable quality.
It’s become embarrassing to watch Falcao play with back to goal. On at least one in every three occasions, he is guaranteed to slip over and lose the ball, with a poor touch or blind alley accounting for at least another third of all his attempts to link play.
Bizarrely, the lowest ebb comes when the Colombian striker actually does something mildly impressive. It causes applause and cheers of such ferocity that they can only be viewed as patronising, deliberately or otherwise. The commentator inevitably says something like “Well that will ingratiate him with supporters,” as if it was something that took magical skill.
A reminder: Falcao is the highest-paid player in Premier League history. We should be praising his braces and hat-tricks, not the achievement of a striker managing to find a teammate with a pass or holding off an opponent.
This is a forward who scored 104 goals in his last 139 league games before arriving in England. It has been an unsuccessful experiment. His removal after an hour was met with waves of goodbye.
Quite why Van Gaal chose to replace one struggling striker with another is unclear. With the season over, would it not have been the perfect opportunity to give James Wilson a chance? At least Wilson would have run the channels and offered a hunger and desire to win back the ball sadly lacking in Van Persie’s game this season.
* A word for Herrera, who again excelled for United in central midfield. More touches and passes than any other player on the pitch, no player made more tackles either.
At his best, Herrera is the fulcrum of United’s midfield in the absence of Michael Carrick. He isn’t just involved in more moments than any of his teammates, but also dictates the tempo and pace of every attack. For an hour against Arsenal, he did that superbly.
After a difficult start to his United career, Herrera has been key in United’s improvement since November. “It’s my first season at a big club and I have played lots of games and scored goals,” he said after the game, now able to ignore the period when we were scratching our heads about his consistent exclusion.
“I want to be as good as possible,” Herrera continued. “I am happy with my development. I have to keep improving.” Manage to do so, and Old Trafford might have another established cult hero. He’s already pretty close.
* Van Gaal was understandably frustrated at his side’s inability to close out the match, but refused to blame bad luck despite the deflection that beat Valdes.
“We are unlucky because of the deflected goal, but I said to my players that it’s not lucky, you have to force luck,” Van Gaal said. “You have to finish games. For one hour we were the better team, and 1-0 ahead. Then you can see that Arsenal want to come back into it. You have to play together, play more compact, not so open. You know the goal can come if you don’t do that.
“Arsenal have the best team but Chelsea can finish the game, and we have to learn that too. This season we have only finished two games. It’s a pity because in spite of injuries again, we were the better team.”
I suppose that Van Gaal means Arsenal have better individuals but that Chelsea’s is a better team. Even if you agree with that statement (and I don’t), it makes not a jot of difference. A manager’s task is to combine the individuals into a team. Mourinho has done that far better than Van Gaal and Wenger this season. At least the Dutchman has the excuse of unfamiliarity.
“We have to play a round to qualify because we haven’t qualified for the Champions League yet,” Van Gaal concluded. “It’s always stressful because you can meet tough opponents. It will not be easy, we have to realise that. We have reached our goal and I like the way we are playing, but I want more. Next year we shall fight for more.”
With another transfer splurge likely, Van Gaal will need to keep his promise.
* For Wenger, another case of what might have been. He will be pleased to avoid defeat at Old Trafford for the sixth consecutive time in the league, but this is not a United side at the height of its powers. Too often in the first half we saw the same old Arsenal, unable to produce their best in the big games.
To update what I said in Big Weekend on Friday, Arsenal’s results against United since November 2008 read: P 17 W 2, D 4, L 11, For 13, Against 30. They have won as many matches against United in the last six-and-a-half years as Swansea have in the last eight-and-a-half months. It will be close to a decade without a league win at Old Trafford.
For all the talk of significant improvement, Arsenal’s progress in the biggest matches centres on the 2-0 win at the Etihad in January. Not only is that exception rather than rule, but it also involved a strategy that Wenger has not returned to, despite its success. In a table from matches between the top eight teams, only Southampton are below Arsenal.
Do I believe that Arsenal have improved? Yes. Do I think they have lost that well-formed soft underbelly? No. Do I believe that they will win the league next season? No. Wenger has the summer to prove me (and other doubters wrong).