It was something of a mixed bag for Arsenal against Manchester United Sunday. Yes, the Londoners came away from Old Trafford with a point, keeping them in-line for a third-place finish and automatic Champions League qualification next season. The draw also saw Arsenal maintain their good record against the top sides, which is much improved from last season. And while the resulting point suits them, apart from the excellent Aaron Ramsey, Arsene Wenger’s team looked rather flat against United.
It’s been a long season and the Gunners’ best players this term have all faded somewhat in recent matches, seemingly exhausted by the campaign. Alexis Sanchez had an anonymous match against United, as did Olivier Giroud. Mesut Ozil provided a few moments of inspiration and some excellent service on set-pieces. But even then, there was no Arsenal player making any effort to get on the end of the German’s crosses. So flat was Arsenal’s attack that the Gunners failed to register a single shot in the first half.
Defensively, Arsenal have improved by leaps and bounds in the past couple seasons. But there were still holes, such as the one Ander Herrera floated through to dispatch United’s opening goal from a virtually unmarked position at the near post. Nacho Monreal made some vital tackles, but Hector Bellerin was basically schooled by Ashley Young, who may have been United’s best player on the day.
Deployed out wide, rather than in his preferred central midfield position, Ramsey was Arsenal’s standout contributor. Over the course of the 90, the Welshman maintained an intensity his teammates failed to match. His passing vision and penetrative runs caused all sort of problems for United. Eventually it was a pass from Ramsey that led to Theo Walcott taking the shot that deflected in off Tyler Blackett for Arsenal’s equalizer.
Walcott was one of Arsenal’s bright spots; coming on late as a substitute, he added a needed touch of pace to Arsenal’s attack that United’s defense had trouble containing. While his shot deflected off Blackett and was counted as an own goal, it was Walcott’s gradually returning sharpness that created the equalizer. Jack Wilshire also made an impact from the bench, coming on to add a touch of fight to the Gunners midfield.
It’s become a familiar refrain about Arsenal needing to add three or four more players to compete at the top again. It’s certainly true that there are better strikers in the world than Giroud. The Frenchman has been the subject of some debate with Thierry Henry saying he’s not good enough to win the Premier League with, while Ian Wright maintains that he is. While the former Montpellier man has been Arsenal’s most reliable striker, he went missing against United as he did against Chelsea and Monaco. A truly world-beating striker, or at least one that’s as good or slightly better than Giroud, could go a long way toward Arsenal sustaining a title challenge over a whole season. And while David Ospina has been better on the whole than the displaced Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal also still look in need of an upgrade in the goalkeeping department.
While he wasn’t at his best against United, Francis Coquelin has gone a long way towards solving Arsenal’s problems in defensive midfield. But with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini reduced to bit part players this season, Arsenal could use another option to enforce in the center of the park. Also, for a team that’s supposedly top-loaded with attacking players, Arsenal have too many attacking midfielders who don’t score that often. Maybe a slight tactical shift is needed, or perhaps it’s a matter of clearing out a few non-scoring pass-masters to make way for another goal-scoring midfielder of Ramsey’s quality.
Arsenal have undeniably been better this term. They’re favorites to win the FA Cup for a second season running. If they can finish third and avoid their usual exhaustive Champions League qualification early in the season, they should be able to better marshal forces for the Premier League campaign. But the danger is that Arsene Wenger will take these positives as signs that this team is ready to challenge for the Premier League title in its current state. It’s not. Almost, but Wenger needs to make the right purchases in the transfer market this summer.