It was not a classic Manchester United v Arsenal affair but it was an intriguing tactical battle between two sides who have qualified for the Champions League next season. The Red Devils took the lead through an Ander Herrera volley from an Ashley Young cross and dominated the majority of the game before a late Tyler Blackett own goal from a deflected Theo Walcott cross levelled the match.
Louis van Gaal was forced into making two changes to the starting eleven with Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw injured, meaning Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao came into the side. It was a result which was not what United were looking for as they are almost certain to have to play a qualifying tie before the Champions League group stage next year. However, a top four finish was what Van Gaal wanted and that is what he has achieved even if there needs to be an improvement in consistency next year.
Here are five key thoughts following the draw with Arsenal in the penultimate game of the season.
1) Plenty of positives for United to take into next season
Fourth place is not where United want to be but after the debacle of last season under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal has done the job he set out to do. He now must push on and sign some quality personnel this summer in order to help United compete on four fronts next year. There is still a question mark over some of the squad but there are plenty of positives to take into 2015-16.
For starters, most of the new signings have settled in well. Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind look like shrewd acquisitions. There has also been some major improvements from players who have been ridiculed in the past. Young, Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia come to mind here. They have all been excellent this season. The squad needs five or six more quality signings in key areas to challenge for the title, and if United can get the signings right they might just be the favourites alongside Chelsea in the Premier League odds for the title next season.
2) That could be the last time we see David De Gea in a United shirt
Unfortunately for United fans, it appears David De Gea is off to Real Madrid after a full season of speculation. His wave to all four corners of the stadium gave us the first clue that this could have been his final Old Trafford appearance and Van Gaal confirmed post-match that the Madrid interest is real. The fact he did not deny the rumours shows that it is more likely to happen than not, which is a great shame. A top quality goalkeeper will now need to be signed.
It will bring to an end a terrific four seasons at Old Trafford for De Gea, who has made the number one shirt his own since arriving from Real’s rivals, Atletico Madrid in 2011. The Spaniard is well and truly established himself as the best goalkeeper in the Premier League and as a challenger to Manuel Neuer to be the best goalkeeper in Europe. De Gea will be missed but he has given us some incredible memories.
3) Radamel Falcao appeared to wave goodbye too when he was substituted
Another player who appears to be on his way out of the club is struggling striker Radamel Falcao. Unfortunately, the experiment has failed here. Falcao’s arrival was greeted with ecstasy from the United fan-base but he has never really got going at Old Trafford. A combination of a lack of confidence, poor form and a lack of game-time has seen Falcao fail to produce this season.
Despite his poor performances, Falcao has become something of a cult hero during his time at United. He blatantly wanted to do well very badly but he has never managed to settle down and score enough goals to nail down that striking role. United should be looking for a world class replacement for the Colombian this summer as it is probably for the best for him to return to his parent club even if it will be a shame to see him scoring goals elsewhere next year.
4) Ashley Young is United’s most improved player this season
As aforementioned, Fellaini and Valencia have been revelations this season but it is Young who has stolen the spotlight in recent weeks with some fantastic displays down the left-hand side. After constant criticism last year, Young has turned his fortunes around and put himself back in everyone’s good books. His threat down the left-hand side is real and he will give new signing Memphis Depay a run for his money next season.
It says it all that Young is starting every game ahead of record signing Angel Di Maria, who is confined to the bench. The Argentine has not been given a chance to get back in the side due to Young’s phenomenal consistency in his performance. Although his end product can still improve, he has taken to Van Gaal’s style perfectly and his direct dribbles and early crosses have United’s biggest attacking threat. He is the most improved player at the club.
5) Chris Smalling has established himself as the leader of the backline
Sunday was the first time that Chris Smalling has been named captain of Manchester United. With Rooney and Michael Carrick both out injured, the 25-year-old was given the responsibility by Van Gaal. The Englishman has been a revelation this term and is without doubt United’s best central defenders. Smalling is one of the first names on the team-sheet and any new signing will be partnering him next year.
But it all could have been so different. When Smalling was sent off against Manchester City, his United career appeared to be over. Everyone had lost all faith in him and even Van Gaal labelled him as “stupid” in his post-match press conference. However, that moment was the making of Smalling. He has matured massively since then, got his head down and put in some truly excellent individual performances on a regular basis since. Hats off to him, he is definitely a United quality centre back.