Manchester United 1 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 Herrera (30)
1 – 1 Blackett o.g. (82)
The most bewildering of performances ended with the most welcome of points. Mixed with the relief of avoiding defeat is huge frustration that Arsenal didn’t do themselves any justice for an hour or so in match that they should have won.
It was that kind of afternoon. It’s been that kind of season.
As it is, third place which was always in Arsenal’s control, has been all but sealed barring the most catastrophic of weeks. Two home games against clubs in the bottom eight of the table ought to bring in six points but last week has shown that nothing can be taken for granted.
Ashley Young was judged to be Man of the Match. If nothing else, that encapsulates how badly Arsenal played for an hour. Passes were so wayward that they couldn’t even find their way to Lost Property whilst possession was ceded so cheaply that even the local pound shop seemed expensive.
Arsène was unimpressed by the first half performance,
We were a bit too timid, too conservative in our possession and a bit too far from each other as well.
Indeed but this is not a new failing. Having found a reasonably effective way of playing in the big matches away from home, Arsène once more employed the rope-a-dope tactics. This time, the energy needed was missing. The attack closed down but having failed to stop United passing forwards, the midfield trio of Ramsey, Cazorla and Sanchez all failed to track back. It left the back four and Coquelin to try to prevent United from scoring. And when they couldn’t do that, they found Chris Smalling auditioning for an Arsenal defensive role, blocking Blind’s shot just before half-time.
It took over an hour for Arsenal to wake up, by which time they could – should – have been more than Herrera’s goal behind. That moment highlighted the problems that beset the performance. United ended up with four attackers against three defenders with Alexis the main culprit for not tracking Herrera’s run and leaving him unmarked but there were so many errors in the build-up to Young’s cross, that it seems almost criminal to pinpoint the Chilean’s failings. Ramsey and Cazorla were too easily and willingly, I have to say, marginalised as passes were made unencumbered by defensive pressure.
As for the finish, should Ospina have done better? To be honest, I’m not sure we should expect it. A powerful, guided volley from an unmarked player ten yards from goal? I don’t think so. Had Herrera not scored, there would have been so many sighs of relief that when the exhaled breath from around the globe met up, it would have been measured as gale force winds. It was that kind of moment.
And United deserved it at that point. Arsenal weren’t in the match and heading for a three or four goal defeat. That they didn’t marks how much of an improvement came in the last half an hour, most noticeably with Walcott’s introduction allowing Ramsey to move into his preferred central role. The pair combined effectively for the equaliser, Ramsey’s raking cross-field pass to Walcott’s feet left the winger with the perfect position to take on Blackett, which he did effectively as his cross was deflected into the net past the hapless Victor Valdes. No repeat of Parisian heroics for the former Barcelona ‘keeper.
It was interesting that Wenger chose to sacrifice Hector Bellerin to bring Walcott into the fray. His performance had underlined the learning curve he still travelling. Caught out of position several times and left hopelessly exposed by Ramsey and the rest of the midfield on other occasions, he still managed to produce some telling challenges. Coquelin’s comparative experience and willingness to suppress his attacking instincts, offered more productive cover as Arsenal pushed forward in search of the equaliser.
I am not bothered by any sense of rough justice that United might have felt had Arsenal won. Olivier Giroud will look back this morning and surely be convinced he ought to have been on the score sheet. The French international was genuinely unlucky to hit the sidenetting moments after Walcott scored but looked leggy and of heavy touch prior to that.
Giroud didn’t expect Phil Jones comedy defending whilst having done all the hard work in pulling a cross which went behind him into a shooting position, Giroud failed to make enough contact on the ball to force De Gea into a save worthy of the name. With no options on the bench to speak of, Wenger was forced to continue with the striker. It underlines why the manager is expected to be busy in that department this summer.
There are positives for the manager as well and they shouldn’t be forgotten. A small step it might be but this season’s results against the top six have been better away from home. The seventeen goals in three games of last year are not quite a distant memory but certainly have been overtaken by some which are better. There’s still room for improvement and if Arsenal are to genuinely challenge for the title next year, the draws at Anfield and Old Trafford have to be turned into wins. That’s the next step up, one which a more settled summer ought to enable.
And in the centre of defence, Laurent Koscielny proved to be the glue that held the back four together as they were overrun. Granted, the Falcao of yesteryear would have buried the opportunity afford him but Koscielny’s speed of recovery meant the chance was snuffed out.
Wenger was praised for the ‘ambitious’ substitutions yesterday. They were surprising in the major reshuffle it enforced and very welcome, a sign of his rediscovered pragmatism. Yet the timing of them left something to be desired, changes at half-time might have produced a more positive outcome and underlining a common theme, Aaron Ramsey’s performance in the centre of midfield was almost unrecognisable from the preceding hour in a notional wide role.
With Jack Wilshere’s energetic buzzing around, Arsène has plenty of food for thought for Wembley. That’s on the back-burner for now though with Sunderland and West Brom to negotiate. Wednesday ought to see a reshuffle with fringe players given the chance as the likes of Cazorla and Sanchez are rested. Second place is still up for grabs but needs Southampton to pull off what seems the unlikeliest of results at The Etihad as well as Arsenal claiming six from the next two games.
That was, to me, the most disappointing aspect about yesterday. Knowing City had won at Swansea, Arsenal were devoid of the urgency needed to keep in the race for the runners-up spot. There was a sense that it was more important to make sure that United didn’t take a brief upper hand in the race for the final automatic Champions League place. I understand that to some extent but the emotion that underpinned the conviction in any sense of improvement this season, has always relied on results. Having lost on Monday, a win against United would have inflated that feeling. Instead, a nagging doubt that we have settled for third has set in.
Then again, that and winning the FA Cup again wouldn’t be a bad season. Would it?