It certainly wasn’t the X Factor, but it was the Next Factor; a battle to prove which of these two great clubs is most likely to challenge Chelsea next season; and the bottom line is Jose Mourinho won’t be too worried.
Arsenal were so bad in the first half — not a shot on goal — that even Theo Walcott’s second-half equaliser, deflected home off Tyler Blackett, will not have stirred the Special One too much.
He could, perhaps, reflect on evidence that the Gunners are beginning to lose their fear of away games against elite opposition, a prospect that could make future title races a little closer; but equally a wastefulness in front of goal suggests they have a way to go before moving up from third to first.
United, too, were a mixed bag. In the first half they dominated their opponents, harried Arsenal out of possession and scored a well-worked goal through Ander Herrera that should have been the springboard to success.
But ultimately they lacked the swagger or confidence to finish the job after the break, allowing Arsenal to find a way back into the game and finish it the more likely winners. In fact, despite that impressive opening 45 minutes you never for a moment after the break felt that Louis van Gaal’s side wanted to extend their lead or rub home their advantage.
There are also so many imponderables at United right now — like whether David de Gea, who limped off injured to be replaced by Victor Valdes, will still be here next year, whether Robin van Persie or Angel Di Maria will remain and how new signing Memphis Depay fits in — that predicting their performance next season is not easy. There is, you suspect, still some serious rebuilding to do.
Between them Manchester United and Arsenal have won 16 of the last 23 league titles on offer in England, so for either to be reduced to the roles of also-rans warrants scrutiny. For United their downfall has been a result of the continued fall-out following Alex Ferguson’s retirement, a concatenation of events that began with the unfortunate appointment of David Moyes, continued with a poor recruitment policy that summer and stuttered again this season as players took time to get used to the regime of Van Gaal.
Recent results suggest that process is drawing to an end; and any leeway the Dutchman was allowed this season will no longer be on offer when he sets out his team in 2015-16 as serious title and Champions League contenders — and almost certainly with a string of expensive new signings added to the mix.
For Arsenal the excuses are running out, too. The debts that hindered their transfer policy after building the Emirates are no longer the focus, the psychological barrier of winning a first trophy in nine years was removed in the FA Cup final last season, they are no longer a selling club and no longer decimated by injuries. They even fielded the same starting X1 for the sixth match in a row at Old Trafford.
But are either of these teams really likely to make life difficult for Chelsea in 2015-16?
The evidence on this showing is that both will need investment to reach the next level — and much will depend on how the money is spent.
Reaching the Champions League is a significant success for United given the problems of last year, but this result means they will almost certainly face a qualifying round to reach the group stage and underlines there is still significant work to do to get anywhere near Chelsea or to regain the kind of winning mentality that typified teams of the past.
In fairness to United, who are earlier in their development plan than Arsenal, they were without Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick against the Gunners, two hugely influential members of the squad, and can reflect on an opening 45 minutes in which they worked the manager’s game-plan to perfection.
Arsenal, meanwhile, may reflect on how they use Aaron Ramsey, who has been shoe-horned into the team in a variety of positions but who is at his best when he plays centrally — as he did in the latter stages against United when he grew in influence and set up his team’s crucial equaliser as United ran out of energy.
Fans will also want to know what happened earlier in the game when their team was so woeful, so wasteful in possession and so alarmingly second-best in almost every area of the field that United really should have wrapped up the game.
It means that although Arsenal will be happiest — with the result they now only need a point against Sunderland on Wednesday to confirm third place — we are no nearer to knowing if Chelsea will face a serious challenge next season as they bid to defend their title. The Next Factor is still searching for a winner.
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