Man United 1 Arsenal 1: If this contest was expected to provide an indication of whether Manchester United or Arsenal are more likely to sustain a Premier League title challenge next season, it categorically failed to provide it.
Indeed it perhaps raised more questions than answers about the capacity of either side to unseat Chelsea, or finish above Manchester City 12 months down the road.
This fixture used to be a biannual ding-dong with the result having a major say in the destination of the Premier League title.
Did you know? Arsenal failed to have a single shot in the first-half of a Premier League game for the first time since November 2004 v Liverpool (Opta).
If those United-Arsenal encounters were of the super-strength variety, this was very much Rivalry Lite.
In fits and starts the potential of both teams was clear, but overall the game lacked intensity.
Louis van Gaal acknowledged that while a top-four finish was a worthwhile achievement in his debut campaign, his own barometer is set much higher.
The Dutchman has been promised sizeable transfer funds by the United board and there is much to do to turn the Red Devils into contenders.
But it’s not just a matter of new players.
“I think the difference between Chelsea and us at this moment is that they can finish a game. They can kill the game,” Van Gaal said.
“I think that is the difference between the top four. That is the mentality we have to improve.”
Van Gaal claimed in the build-up to the game that Arsenal were as good as Chelsea football-wise — but lacked the ruthlessness and aggression of Jose Mourinho’s title winners.
It was an accurate assessment.
The Gunners were all intricate passes, intelligently worked triangles in tight areas, but United simply packed bodies behind the ball when not in possession and Arsene Wenger’s side were unable to finish chances with the authority of a top side. That is something Wenger must address.
“I believe we have come out of the season with the feeling we have made progress,” Wenger said.
“We were consistent against smaller teams but also we are stronger against the bigger teams.
“It’s a continuity in our results and it’s as well a platform to better next season. We were slow to start this season but I think we’ve made progress. We want to secure second or third and start on the front foot next season.”
United played with more conviction and simplicity going forward, particularly down the flanks where Ashely Young and Juan Mata frequently looked the most likely to create an opening.
On the half-hour the decisive moment arrived with Young — who has been rejuvenated by Van Gaal having seen his career stall under predecessor David Moyes — instrumental.
Young’s poise on the ball saw him glide past Hector Bellerin on the left flank and he lifted a high cross to the back post for the unmarked Ander Herrera to side-foot under the sprawling frame of David Ospina.
Van Gaal withdrew the energetic but ineffective Radamel Falcao early in the second half and it appears increasingly unlikely the Colombia striker’s loan move from Monaco will be turned into a permanent one.
Certainly the wave Falcao gave the Old Trafford crowd as he departed the pitch was one that indicated a parting of ways rather a ‘see you in August’.
“You know how the situation is of Falcao,” Van Gaal added. “At the end of the season we will decide.”
Having sleepwalked through the first period Arsenal played with more purpose and intensity after the break and were unlucky not to level sooner than they did.
Just after the hour Olivier Giroud spun Marcos Rojo in the box but was unable to generate enough power on his shot and David De Gea saved. Shortly afterwards Rojo hooked Aaron Ramsey’s chip over De Gea off the line.
United lost goalkeeper De Gea to a hamstring injury with 16 minutes which meant a debut for former Barcelona stopper Victor Valdes, although his first job was to pick the ball out of the net as the pressure exerted by Wenger’s side finally yielded an equaliser.
Walcott controlled a long ball and his low angled shot took a wicked deflection off Tyler Blackett and beat Valdes at the far post.
Van Gaal confirmed that De Gea will now miss United’s final game of the season at Hull City — and admits he is powerless to prevent him leaving Old Trafford with Real Madrid looming.
“I don’t think I can persuade him because he knows everything what he has at that moment in Manchester United,” Van Gaal explained. “I cannot (guarantee he will stay), but a transfer is a process, involving a player, a club and his present club. He has to choose.
“It’s not easy to choose between two great clubs. He’s Spanish and his girlfriend is Spanish, so we would be very happy if he stays.”
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-1-4-1):
De Gea 7 (Valdes 74, 6); Valencia 5, Jones 6, Smalling 6, Rojo 5 (Blackett 73, 5); Blind 6; Mata 7, Herrera 6, Fellaini 6, Young 8; Falcao 5 (Van Persie 61, 5).
Ospina 6; Bellerin 5 (Walcott 72, 8), Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 6, Monreal 5; Coquelin 6, Cazorla 7 (Wilshere 73, 6); Ramsey 6, Ozil 6, Sanchez 6 (Flamini 90, 6); Giroud 5.
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