A point at the Emirates doesn’t do an awful lot for United’s increasingly distant hopes of securing a Champions League slot next season, but the disciplined manner of the performance and a game in which they matched the title hopefuls may bode well for the longer term. Indeed, were it not for Szczesny thwarting Robin Van Persie close to both the beginning and end of the game, United might well have come away with a hard-earned point.
In a first half in which both sides struggled to produce any consistent fluency, the best chances came early and easily the best of them fell to Van Persie. Acting quickly to dispossess a sleeping Arteta, the Dutchman found himself through with only the keeper to beat, but uncharacteristically shot directly at Szczesny, who smothered the ball comfortably. Another opportunity to score against his own side was wasted when Van Persie shot across goal; between the two chances the closest Arsenal came to threatening De Gea’s goal was when Giroud misdirected a free header wide of the keeper’s right post.
Although the first 45 minutes offered pretty dour fare from both sides, tactically this was a vastly improved effort from the Reds when compared with other recent games against teams above us in the table. United showed little of the naivety that brought about defeats to Spurs and Chelsea; they refused to over-commit, Rooney frequently dropping deep to provide an extra central midfielder and Carrick and Cleverly maintaining a high line up the field, allowing them to keep a tight rein on Arteta and Wilshere and limited Arsenal to very few meaningful forays into the United box. It wasn’t, needless to say, pretty, but it showed a work ethic and a character that’s been seriously questioned so often this season. Representing the spirit most was Vidic, who grew in stature as the game went on and Arsenal began to seek more earnestly the points that would take them above Chelsea at the top of the league.
The home side came close to scoring just after the hour mark when Valencia was called upon to clear Koscielny’s header off the line. This followed the first period of sustained pressure from Arsenal to bring a serious test for the back for. As the minutes ticked on, both sides began to shed the cautious approach that had served them thus far and showed a clear determination to go for the winner. Both sides introduced youth and speed from the bench, Januzaj coming on for United and Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal. Soon afterwards, the home side came lose when Giroud just failed to get the decisive touch on a wicked Sagna cross and soon after United came even closer, a brilliant link-up between Rooney and Van Persie leading to the latter having his header tipped onto the woodwork by Szczesny.
Soon after, it was De Gea’s turn to imitate the heroics at the other end when he produced a superb save from Cazorla. In the final seconds of normal he saved again from the same player, this time holding on to the ball and bringing to an end the last meaningful attack of the game. Although Moyes was clearly urging his side forward as the match drew to a close, and despite the fact that three points was really what United needed here, their ability to produce the kind of performance that epitomised an away leg in a European game illustrated the quality that remains at the heart of this United team. Sadly, of course, it’s been dormant for too much of the season, which means that, unless we somehow go and win the Champions League, we’re unlikely to be deploying such tactics on the continent next season.