It was a game that was always going to tell us more about Arsenal than it did about United. While Premiership points records offer some motivation for a team, such a pursuit hardly compares with the chase for a Champions League place. Arsenal clearly played as a team with more reason to chase the victory than United did but, in the end, they looked exactly what they’ve looked since Van Persie took his momentous trip north last summer: a side without cutting edge, confidence or class. We got the guard of honour, of course, but such has been the professionalism and obvious lack of ego among these United players that they largely appeared almost embarrassed as they ran on the pitch. This has been a United team whose success this season has come through attitude as much as from ability and, for such players, the serious business of celebrating the title already done and the trophy waiting to be presented, such trimmings mean little.
In the first half United played like a team who’d been on the ale all week, which presumably was what they were. Despite this, Arsenal only took the lead through a goal from Walcott that should have been ruled offside and, although they dominated the first half, the teams went in level when Sagna followed a piece of shoddy defending by bringing Van Persie down in the area. You’ll rarely see a more obvious penalty, but that didn’t stop Sagna and Arsenal protesting his innocence like John Terry on a race relations forum. RVP, boos ringing around the stadium from fans lacking the class to show him the respect he’s shown them, put his spot kick away with a decisiveness we’ve seen all too rarely from United penalty takers this season.
The aggrieved din generated from fans at the Emirates when the penalty was given was matched by their ire when Valencia’s handball in the second half failed to result in a penalty. The referee, instead, chose to play by the rules and award a free kick outsider the area, because that’s where the handball took place. They followed it again when desperately calling for another penalty against Rio later in the half. These are, you sensed, fans clutching at every straw possible. Their concerns, if not their pleas, are understandable. No longer can Arsenal consider themselves nailed-on certainties to qualify for the Champions League and, when United shook off their hangovers and entered the game towards the end of the first half, there was an immediate sense that the Gunners had already squandered any chance they had to win the game. So it turned out.
United played well within themselves. There was some swift counter-attacking from Rooney and Van Persie as the game went on but, on the wings, Valencia continued to look jaded while Nani blew hot and cold. We looked solid and well-organised again in central defence, with Rio and Evans keeping things tight even while their teammates were running off their championship celebrations. Jones, deployed as a ball-winning central midfielder, grew in class as the game went on and looked just as good when switching to right back in the second half, while De Gea made some important saves when called upon to do so, including a particularly fine one from a Santi Cazorla effort,
Ultimately, though, watching United was like going through the end credits of a film whose ending we already knew, had very much enjoyed and were still talking about. This is a team moulded to win championships, not to chase records. As such, there was the predictable air of a team already looking towards next season. Fergie has always honoured his commitment to put out strong sides when the games mean something. I’m guessing he’ll do the same against Chelsea next week but feel liberated against mid-table opposition in the season’s last two games. There have already been hints that the exciting prospect Adnan Januzaj will get a run out and it would be great to see a bit more of what Nick Powell can offer too. I hope so because, while looking forward to the trophy presentation against Swansea and next weekend’s opportunity to deny Chelsea a Champions League place, I’m looking more towards next season too, and with considerable optimism.