Having lost on all recent Premier League trips to Old Trafford, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United should be viewed as a positive result. And, having been 1-0 down in the game, it’s to Arsenal’s credit that they did salvage a point from the game. But I feel some frustration that it took Arsenal so long to impose themselves on the match. That Manchester United team were there for the taking, and the Gunners couldn’t repeat the result they achieved at the same venue earlier in the season in the FA Cup.
The first half was incredibly lame from Arsenal, giving the game a distinct end-of-season feel. Without Wayne Rooney, the hosts didn’t carry too much of a threat, and with Marouane Fellaini in the team, there was always going to be one obvious tactic of always looking to the play aerially to the Belgian to challenge in the air.
Fellaini’s presence drew in defenders in the first half to create the opening goal for Ander Herrera as Arsenal, understandably, looked to cover the danger he posed, leaving Herrera free in the penalty area. He was able to volley the deep cross from the left towards goal and past David Ospina at the near post. Having looked suspect in letting Bafetimbi Gomis score on Monday night against Swansea, questions should again be asked of Ospina as shouldn’t be getting beaten at his near post. Arsenal’s goalkeeper situation will be one that’s sure to be closely monitored over the summer.
Even though they didn’t create many clear opportunities, Manchester United deserved to be ahead as Arsenal lacked any urgency or drive through midfield to have any shots at goal. There were fleeting glimpses of danger, but the Gunners struggled to throw any punches before half time. Rather than the final pass being the issue, Arsenal’s second or third pass in a move was going astray, meaning there was little attack momentum. The starting XI, which was unchanged for the sixth game in a row, didn’t look like the team that has developed a good understanding in recent weeks.
Things did change in the second half as Arsenal slowly crept their way back into the game and built some pressure. Mesut Ozil became more influential and Olivier Giroud was given a bit more of the ball to bring others into the game. The extra burst from midfield was needed though, and albeit what felt like five or ten minutes too late, Arsene Wenger injected that into the game by bringing on Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.
The introduction of Walcott in particular was significant as the Englishman went and played on the right hand side, allowing Aaron Ramsey to move back into his favoured role in central midfield. From there, the Welshman took the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated proceedings. It wasn’t a surprise that he was heavily involved in Arsenal’s equalising goal, as his superb cross-field pass picked out Walcott in the inside-right position.
Having someone who was willing to run at the full-backs made a nice change for the Gunners, and Walcott engineered half a yard of space against Tyler Blackett to hit a low cross towards the six-yard box. The ball deflected past Victor Valdes and into the back of the net to give Arsenal a deserved equaliser. Having not been in the game in the first half, the Gunners were suddenly dominating the game and looked most likely to go on to win the match.
The impact made by Theo Walcott, and the combination and energy in central midfield shown by Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere gives Arsene Wenger plenty to think about ahead of the final two league matches and the FA Cup final. It has undoubtedly been positive to be able to select the same starting XI for six matches in a row, but I’ll be staggered if the same side is picked for seventh match when Sunderland visit the Emirates on Wednesday.
Santi Cazorla has had a fantastic season, but he looked tired during the game at Old Trafford, and it was noticeable how much more drive there was from the centre of the pitch when Ramsey and Wilshere were in there. I expect at least one of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere to start on Wednesday, and if they put in a good performance, they could yet thrust themselves into the forefront of the manager’s mind for cup final selection. I’d also like to see Aaron Ramsey back in central midfield for a whole game, as he looked re-energised when he moved there against Manchester United.
Even though third place is almost wrapped up, the dangling carrot of a place in the FA Cup final team should keep Arsenal players motivated for the final two matches in the Premier League. With changes likely, the fringe players should have a chance to press their claim, as the starters in possession at the moment didn’t do much to prove they deserved their place in the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford.