A late own goal from Tyler Blackett, deflecting in a Theo Walcott cross, rescued a point for Arsenal at Manchester United and all but secured them a place in the Premier League’s top three. The hosts had been the dominant team at Old Trafford for much of the encounter and took a deserved lead through Ander Herrera’s 30th-minute volley. But second-half substitutions helped Arsenal build some momentum and one of those brought on, Walcott, made a decisive impact tricking one United replacement, Blackett, before his touch took it past another, Victor Valdes, in goal.
The match lacked the stakes of the two fierce rivals’ meetings at the turn of the century, but a victory for United would have maintained their realistic hopes of avoiding a potentially perilous Champions League playoff. Arsenal have been down that route in six of the previous nine seasons, but they now look set to avoid such an anxious start to the next campaign. A draw means that they remain two points clear of Manchester United, and have the benefit of two matches rather than one still to play. Realistically a point in either of their remaining matches at home to Sunderland and West Brom would make sure of third spot.
That will delight Arsene Wenger, although, with an FA Cup final also upcoming at the end of the month, his side’s performance on Sunday is likely to leave him with some concerns. After 10 Premier League matches unbeaten and displaying the best form of any team in 2015, Arsenal came close to losing two on the bounce following their 1-0 reversal at home to Swansea City on Monday night. It was the sixth consecutive match in which Wenger had named an unchanged lineup and that perhaps explained the lack of sharpness his team displayed both with and without the ball for large spells at Old Trafford on Sunday.
There appeared a game plan to soak up pressure and strike on the break as Arsenal did successfully at Manchester City earlier in the campaign. But they were instead far too passive for much of the contest. Lacking any real threat on the break, Arsenal struggled to deal with the intensity and often cohesion of United’s play going forward.
Despite still missing the influential figure of Michael Carrick and with captain Wayne Rooney also unavailable, Louis van Gaal will have been satisfied with the purpose shown by his side after three straight defeats were followed by an unconvincing win over Crystal Palace last week. Still, while the current lineup performed admirably for the most part, not least when Ashley Young’s cross set up Herrera to open the scoring, the final match at Old Trafford this season also provided further signs that there will be numerous changes afoot this summer.
After another enthusiastic but ultimately ineffective performance, Radamel Falcao appeared to wave a last goodbye to the Old Trafford crowd when being replaced by Robin van Persie on the hour mark. Van Persie’s own future remains a doubt, as does, for very different reasons, David de Gea. The goalkeeper, linked with increasing strength to a transfer to Real Madrid, was forced off with an injury with 16 minutes remaining, and the Old Trafford crowd rose to salute the Spaniard as he made his way off.
De Gea’s injury meant a long-awaited debut for January signing Victor Valdes. But it was far from the sweetest of cameos for the former Barcelona stopper, and within eight minutes of stepping onto the pitch he was left unable to recover after Walcott’s trickery was followed by Blackett’s touch to the winger’s cross.
Having started to improve and pose a greater threat after the hour mark, as well as going close to a winner late on through Olivier Giroud, Arsenal will likely consider a point a just outcome. They had, though, been undoubtedly second best for much of the late afternoon in Manchester. The performances of Young and Marouane Fellaini, against all expectations at the start of the season, continue to be key for United.
Francis Coquelin was detailed with following the big Belgian, but he crucially over-committed in the buildup to United’s goal. After Fellaini got away from him in midfield, Young, as he did on more than one occasion, got the better of Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin and this time went down the line to deliver a cross with his weaker left foot. With both Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny drawn to stopping Fellaini in the middle, Herrera was left free to produce a sweetly struck volley past David Ospina.
The first 45 minutes came to a close with Arsenal failing to have a single shot for the first time in the first half of a Premier League fixture in over a decade. The only disappointment for Manchester United will be that they weren’t able to turn their dominance into more goals. And that failure came back to haunt Van Gaal’s side when their lack of squad depth was exposed and Arsenal’s changes made the difference.