I saw talk before the match of Arsene Wenger setting up to go with an attacking gameplay having secured victories at City and United this season while playing a much more compact game than usual. It was no surprise, given those two results, that once again we set our stall at Old Trafford to defend first and foremost, and look to hit the home side on the counter.
That approach requires more accurate passing than we could muster in the opening half. As early as the third minute Alexis overhit a ball for Olivier Giroud as we sought to pinch a lead. Then the Chilean broke clear himself only to be hustled off the ball by Blind, but these were rare forays into the attacking third by the visitors.
Surrendering territory and possession meant that United would fashion half-chances. Young blazed one over and Laurent Koscielny had to be alert to block an effort from Falcao, starting in preference to van Stapleton. When Juan Mata hit a weak free-kick that David Ospina dealt with comfortably one wondered if they had any cutting edge in the absence of Wayne Rooney.
The answer came in the thirtieth minute when Young got the better of Hector Bellerin and crossed to the far post for Herrera to volley past David Ospina at his near post, with Nacho Monreal drawn into a central covering role. The full-backs were otherwise excellent, and Ospina wasn’t unduly troubled again, but the damage had been done.
The problem with going behind when playing rope-a-dope is how and when to change things. Clearly either side of half-time the instruction appeared to be stick with it, and see if we can pinch an equaliser. Sadly though with the midfield collectively unable to string together the sort of passing moves that are their trademark, we found ourselves in the position of hoping not to concede a second goal.
Eight minutes shy of the hour we had our first shot of the match. Giroud set up Alexis but his effort was high and wide, much to the derision of the home support at the old scoreboard end. That could not be described as the turning point, which was surely reached twenty minutes later with a double substitution, but slowly Arsenal found a way into the game.
Giroud did well to hold off Marcos Rojo but couldn’t get sufficient power or direction to beat David de Gea, then the increasingly influential Aaron Ramsey chipped the United goalkeeper only for Rojo to clear. The chances were coming, and Arsene decided to change our shape somewhat. Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott came on for Bellerin and the unusually ineffective Santi Cazorla. Francis Coquelin was switched to right back, behind Theo, while Jack joined Rambo in a new look central midfield.
Ramsey in particular, back in his favoured role, took the game by the scruff of the neck, and ten minutes after the double substitution we were level. There is no denying a slice of good fortune was involved as Rambo picked out Theo with a magnificent 40-yard pass and the latter’s attempted cross was deflected in by Blackett. It was an equaliser we had undoubtedly threatened, and the Gunners went in search of a dramatic winner.
A minute later Giroud was inches wide with a near post flick into the side-netting, and the same player couldn’t quite find his touch when another chance came his way. At the other end United fashioned a last opportunity for their Dutch substitute, but Van Stapleton cleared the bar comfortably to the delight of the again-magnificent traveling faithful.
The final whistle left Arsenal considerably happier with the point than their hosts, although credit to Louis van Gaal who said this afterwards,
“I believe that Arsenal are maybe the best team in the league but Chelsea can finish a game. We were better than our opponents for one hour, and we led one-zero, but we have to finish the game.”
For me the best team in the League is the one that finishes first, but every non-Chelsea fan knew exactly what he meant by that. Arsene too conceded that we had to come back from a difficult start to the match.
“The only regret I have is that we didn’t take the three points in the second half. We started the first half slowly, Manchester United were sharper at the beginning, and we were a bit stretched as well width and length-wise. The second half we were more compact and we took over. We showed a great response and got a deserved point.”
The result means that effectively a point from our two remaining home games should seal automatic Champions League group phase qualification, but to finish as runners up we need to win both and hope that Southampton can win at City next Sunday. Never say never, but that appears a tall order right now.
In the meantime let’s just enjoy our ‘unbeaten in Manchester’ season. They don’t come along too often.