Theo Walcott sparks Arsenal to a creditable draw at Man United
MANCHESTER, England -- Theo Walcott's deflected shot gave Arsenal a 1-1 draw at Manchester United. Here are three quick observations from Sunday's Premier League clash at Old Trafford.
1. Arsenal tighten grip on third place
So another issue is almost settled. Arsenal's goal difference means they only require one more point to guarantee automatic qualification for the Champions League, while Manchester City only need to avoid defeat against Southampton to pip the Gunners for second place. With two home games remaining, Arsene Wenger's side are close to holding off Manchester United's challenge for third.
They may have scarcely deserved a draw at Old Trafford, but they could savour just their second point in eight league trips there nonetheless. They were mediocre in the first half but displayed more urgency thereafter. Wenger's replacements made an impact and United, who have an admirable league record against the major sides this season, were denied a seventh victory against the rest of the top seven.
The leveller was a goal that involved three substitutes. Theo Walcott's shot took a hefty deflection off Tyler Blackett to beat Victor Valdes. The goal was debited to Blackett but was particularly unfortunate for Valdes, too, who conceded eight minutes into his United first-team career after David De Gea was withdrawn with an undisclosed injury.
United's strike after 30 minutes was altogether classier. An Ashley Young cross created the goal that in effect secured fourth place for United, when Marouane Fellaini scored at Crystal Palace last week. Another brought Ander Herrera's opener on Sunday, the Spaniard volleying in at the far post. Young is the man most at threat by Memphis Depay's forthcoming arrival but he has definitely started staking his case to stay in the side.
2. Farewell to Falcao and De Gea?
This is the stage of the season where farewells are on the agenda, and not merely for Steven Gerrard. Admittedly, many departures are not confirmed but there can still be a valedictory feel. Perhaps for David de Gea; almost certainly for Radamel Falcao, who surely won't line up at Old Trafford in red again. One has been a spectacular success, the other a chastening failure.
The Colombian owed a rare start to Wayne Rooney's injury and Robin van Persie's illness. He lasted an hour, departing to a generous ovation with what seemed an apologetic wave for a United career that has got worse the longer it has lasted. Laurent Koscielny dominated their duel, outpacing him, out-jumping him and blocking his shot.
De Gea, meanwhile, was a spectator for large swathes of the game but provided a reminder of his class with a point-blank block from Olivier Giroud around the hour mark. It was a reminder why he deserves to retain United's player of the year award. When he was substituted -- injured, rather than in a sentimental gesture -- the cheers were deafening. De Gea's tour de force seemed set to secure United a victory against Arsenal; perhaps he would have succeeded where Valdes failed and prevented the equaliser. Maybe that is being harsh on the older Spaniard, but it is very evident why Real Madrid covet De Gea.
Others players' futures are rather more clear. Chris Smalling's improved form in the last three months has brought a new four-year contract, a promotion to the rank of first-choice centre-back and now the captaincy. He scarcely seemed a worthy successor to Nemanja Vidic, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson. Manchester United have a tradition of warrior captains. A theme of modern football is the lack of natural leaders and, when Smalling donned the United armband, it seemed further evidence.
In fairness, he was at best the fourth in line, but with Rooney and Michael Carrick injured and Robin van Persie ill, Smalling was the unlikely replacement selected partly as a reward for a recent upturn in his fortunes and partly, but also presumably due to a lack of alternatives. Certainly it reflected the need to import more talismanic figures in the transfer market, and there remains the possibility that one will bought to partner Smalling in central defence next season.
But Wenger, who tried to sign Smalling in 2010, needed no persuading of his merits. He appears to have gained another admirer in Louis van Gaal, ranking as the more elegant centre-back when the ever-ungainly Phil Jones contrived to thwart Giroud with a diving header while grounded. Smalling showed more authority, as well as more conventional methods, in his defending. Yet two over-hit cross-field balls, which sailed out, were reminders of his limitations.
3. Walcott refreshes stale Arsenal
The bare facts: Walcott has only started three Premier League games this season. He has not completed 90 minutes in the top flight since New Year's Day. And in 2014, not 2015.
But by offering width and pace, his arrival helped Arsenal get back into the match. It was a game-changing double swap from Wenger, who also introduced Jack Wilshere as Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla went off in a reshuffle. This cameo ranked as a rare highlight in a tough year for Walcott, who had been first injured then omitted.
Arsenal needed fresh legs. They were unchanged for a sixth successive game, which had proved a winning formula before Swansea arrived at the Emirates Stadium. But for the second consecutive match, Arsenal lacked sharpness. Giroud spurned a late chance to win it, extending his goal drought to a sixth successive game, but the creative contingent afforded him too few chances.
And while Arsenal have defended much better of late, Herrera's goal revealed a familiar failing of attack-minded players to track back. Herrera was freed because Juan Mata showed great intelligence in moving infield, forcing Nacho Monreal to follow him. By the time Alexis Sanchez had retreated far enough, Herrera was starting to celebrate. The Chilean has been overworked this season and is starting to show signs of fatigue.
It was the first time since New Year's Day that they had conceded a first-half Premier League goal. It was also the first time since 2004 they had not attempted a shot in the opening 45 minutes of a game in the division. When Sanchez recorded their first effort, it was high and wild. Yet thereafter, Arsenal improved and reaped a reward.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.