IT comes to something when a battling goalless draw against a side that had just been beaten 5-1 by Liverpool is seen as a positive result for Manchester United; but that probably sums up where David Moyes’ side are right now, and sums up the size of their problems too.
On the surface a point is not a disaster — it leaves United still in seventh place with little changed in the Premier League table — and can probably be seen as one of their best away results of a difficult season. But it is almost heartbreaking to see how far the champions have dropped in terms of stature in such a short period of time.
Moyes will point to the hard work of a defence that kept only its third clean sheet in 10 games, to the threat of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney on the break, and to a save from Wojciech Szczesny that denied them victory.
But this didn’t look like Manchester United; long hoofed clearances, mis-placed passes in midfield, aiming to defend deep for long periods and wait for one chance on the break. This from the team that swaggered its way through the last 20 years with an inherent belief it would win against every opponent it faced? This from a side renowned for lightning-quick football and a glamorous sparkle?
Few gave them any chance of winning here at the Emirates despite Arsenal’s own mini crisis and but for van Persie’s far-post header that produced an incredible save from Szczesny, they rarely looked like doing so.
Yes, this result steadies the ship and helps ease the pain of defeat at Stoke and a last-minute equaliser conceded against rock-bottom Fulham at the weekend; but it still leaves United 11 points behind fourth place with any hope of qualifying for the Champions League looking increasingly forlorn.
Even a place in the much-maligned Europa League looks a big ask when you consider they are eight points behind fifth-placed Spurs; and that could be a serious threat to ambitious plans to spend big this summer and begin the long task of closing the gap in time for next season.
Earlier in the day United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward had admitted: “It’s fair to say we are focused on strengthening the squad and looking at some players to sell. We’re not in the position we want to be in and we’re working hard to change that. We will invest in our squad as needed to make sure we’re competing at the highest level. Our focus is on building a competitive squad to challenge for trophies. We have the ability to buy players.”
This result will do little to help Woodward’s chances of attracting the biggest names to Old Trafford when European football is almost certainly not on offer.
Nobody can fault the effort of United’s players or their fans who continue, remarkably and admirably, to back Moyes to the hilt; but the club will need more than hard-fought draws and battling defensive displays to win back the aura they are currently missing.
Avoiding defeat at the Emirates, fair enough; but this was four points dropped in four days in a Premier League table that is rapidly slipping away from them, now 15 points adrift of top place with only 12 games to go.
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