Friday 15 November 2019

Gunners draw comfort

Man Utd 1-1 Arsenal

Tyler Blackett deflects Theo Walcott’s shot into his own net for Arsenal’s equaliser
Tyler Blackett deflects Theo Walcott’s shot into his own net for Arsenal’s equaliser
Radamel Falcao may have been saying goodbye at Old Trafford
Wayne Rooney’s son, Kai, shows his skills at Old Trafford

Henry Winter

Short of booking into a spa in Alsace with a box set of The Invincibles, Arsene Wenger could not have imagined a "more serene break" than the one all but guaranteed here.

Blessed with a superior goal difference of +7 over fourth-placed Manchester United, Arsenal now need only one point from home games against Sunderland and West Brom to secure a place in the group stage of the Champions League, so saving a potentially jittery play-off in August.

It looks like United are heading into the August 7 draw in Nyon, facing games on August 18-19 and 25-26, meaning a more intense start to pre-season training, bedding new players in earlier and the imperative of hitting the ground running.

Arsenal can be more relaxed, "more serene" to borrow Wenger's phrase.

They were anaemic initially here, failing to manage a shot on target in the first half, and deservedly falling behind to the excellent Ander Herrera, but they responded strongly after the break.

They were more assertive, especially when Theo Walcott arrived to give more drive down the right. Walcott's pace and directness are powerful weapons.

Arsenal fans had been calling for Walcott, sensing that United's back-line could be got at.

Louis van Gaal's decision to remove Marcos Rojo, who was doing well at left-back, was necessitated by the Argentinian lacking match "rhythm" after injury, according to the United manager.

Tyler Blackett came on and was immediately targeted by Walcott. The England flier kept running at his new opponent, eventually forcing an own goal seven minutes from time.

Serenity ruled, especially with the exciting prospect of the FA Cup final to come.

Encouragingly for Arsenal, their comeback demonstrated that they may gradually be acquiring more mental resilience, one of their main flaws since the Invincibles. This was only their second point at Old Trafford from 24.

The draw was deeply frustrating for United but their main aim this season was getting back into Europe's elite competition, even if they are likely to require a play-off. Van Gaal has United moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

At the end, Van Gaal continued the manager's tradition of taking the microphone and addressing the faithful.

As Arsenal supporters sang loudly in the background about Wembley, Van Gaal delivered a short thank you speech to United's fans - "you were amazing" - and has clearly been moved by the unconditional support offered him.

Writing in the match-day programme, Van Gaal was more forthcoming, saying that the "biggest highlight" of the season had been "the support of the fans" that was so "unbelievable" and was "something I've not experienced at the other clubs I've managed".

That was quite a statement, and quite a compliment to United fans.

Given that the Dutchman guided Ajax to Champions League glory in May 1995 and then a remarkable 2-0 victory at the Bernabeu six months later, a performance he described as "perfect", it is safe to say that he received impassioned backing from Ajax supporters that golden year.

Yet the Stretford End has backed him emphatically, including "to my surprise" when Van Gaal walked along the touchline at Old Trafford at United's first home game after the League Cup embarrassment at MK Dons in September.

The patience is there, partly because United fans understand that a manager with such a formidable aura and curriculum vitae deserves loyalty and also because an imbalanced squad needs extensive work.

Radamel Falcao's waving to all parts of the ground as he was substituted on the hour contained a valedictory feel. He was replaced by Robin van Persie, the 31-year-old with a patchy injury record whose days look numbered.

United could free up considerable wages if that pair moved on.

Far more alarming is the thought of David de Gea following them out of the door.

United have conceded only 37 goals in 37 games and much of that miserliness has been down to their Spanish shot-stopper.

One of his saves from Olivier Giroud at close range was another reminder of his mastery of the goalkeeping art. It triggered pleading chants of "Oh, David de Gea, we want you to stay".

Van Gaal sounded determined to keep De Gea away from Real Madrid's clutches but there was an element of realism in his words when he began talking about "his girlfriend is Spanish" and that it was a "difficult" decision for De Gea.

Madrid's lure and recruiting tactics are invariably persuasive. As De Gea suffered a slight hamstring, United fans may have seen the last of him.

Victor Valdes was given a huge reception when he replaced De Gea.

Van Gaal's post-match love-in with the fans was all very well but a club as large and ambitious as United should really be slightly sheepish about celebrating fourth (secured when fifth-placed Liverpool lost to Crystal Palace on Saturday).

"We're happy to be in the top four but we are Manchester United and next season we must fight for every trophy,'' Herrera said.

The nimble Spaniard shone, especially in the first half, while Ashley Young maintained the sort of vibrant form that will surely see his return to the England fold when Roy Hodgson names his squad on Thursday for the June internationals with the Republic of Ireland and Slovenia.

Young created Herrera's goal on the half-hour by whipping in a good cross from the left.

Arsenal were fixated with Marouane Fellaini, focusing on the tall Belgian, and leaving Herrera unmarked towards the far post. Herrera's finish was crisp, giving David Ospina no chance.

Herrera was a joy to watch, and must have been a shimmering nightmare to play against for an hour as when his quick feet steered the ball past Giroud and Aaron Ramsey, who ended up inspecting the turf.

United were in charge. Fellaini was dealing well with Per Mertesacker at set-pieces. Daley Blind kept breaking up moves. Mata kept driving the ball left to Young or linking with Herrera.

The one disappointment was Falcao. Van Gaal and set Arsenal another test on the hour by sending on Van Persie for the ineffective Colombian. United expected more than four goals in 29 appearances for £265,000 a week.

The focus then turned to De Gea, who made that fine save from Giroud, but was then caught out by Ramsey who ran on to Santi Cazorla's pass and lifted the ball over the United keeper. Fortunately for the hosts, Rojo had covered back to clear.

De Gea then departed injured, bringing in Valdes for his United debut and first game since Barcelona beat Celta Vigo 3-0 on March 26 last year. Valdes was warmly greeted - and soon beaten.

Walcott was twisting young Blackett this way and that before playing the ball across goal. It clipped Blackett and looped into the goal past the wrong-footed Valdes.

As well as a reminder of Walcott's enduring threat, it was deserved reward for Arsenal's improved second-half performance which has surely booked Wenger that "serene break".

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