Arsenal 1 Manchester United 1: If the plan was to psyche out Robin van Persie with sheer hostility, or to fill his head with endless accusations of betrayal then, quite frankly, someone at the Emirates forgot to send the memo. If it was the proverbial cauldron of hatred you were expecting then try elsewhere: a different stadium, a different time, a different demographic of supporters.
Yes, the Arsenal fans booed Van Persie’s name, they booed him when he came out of the tunnel for the start of the game and they got pretty upset when he scored his team’s goal from the penalty spot shortly before half-time. It was remarked that some isolated Arsenal fans appeared to be applauding their former captain in defiance of the general mood but that is so hard to tell.
The majority might have come to the ground on Sunday with the intention of dishing it out to Van Persie but it was hard to avoid the feeling that many of the Arsenal support never really turned up the dial. They did not wish to accede to Arsène Wenger’s request that he should be welcomed “with class” and they could scarcely abide the guard of honour the Arsenal players were obliged to form before the game. But a hostile atmosphere? Hardly.
No one was expecting, nor wanting to see, anything aimed at Van Persie that was beyond the pale. But what was a surprise, even by the standards of the Emirates, was the way in which an event became a non-event. “Disappointed love,” was how Wenger summed up the fans’ reaction. Disappointing just about covered it.
Arsenal gave the kind of performance that sadly will have reminded Van Persie why he could not fulfil his ambitions at the club. They started like a train with a goal from Theo Walcott in the first two minutes while United began the game at half-pace. Then, when it was required of Arsenal in the second half to step up the tempo and overwhelm an opponent who had absolutely nothing riding on the match, they simply did not have the game to do so.
Any comparison between Lukas Podolski, playing as centre-forward in the absence of the suspended Olivier Giroud, to Van Persie just seems unnecessarily cruel. The Germany international is not a top-level Premier League centre-forward, not by any stretch of the imagination, and any winning goal, after Van Persie’s equaliser, was more likely to come from Santi Cazorla or Walcott.
What must be such a worry for Arsenal supporters as they approach the last three games of the season was the inability of their players to go up a few gears when they really needed three points.
Even with Jack Wilshere on for the last 28 minutes they could not raise the tempo higher than United managed, and United are simply fulfilling fixtures. Arsenal are fourth, two points ahead of Tottenham who play Chelsea on 8 May in that extra game both have over Arsenal.
Arsenal’s position as regards securing Champions League football next season is far from ideal although it is not impossible. They cannot countenance anything other than a victory in Saturday’s game against relegated Queen’s Park Rangers at Loftus Road. Their last two games, at home to Wigan Athletic and away to Newcastle, on the final day of the season, are against sides for whom relegation is still a possibility to a greater or lesser degree.
For that reason Wenger refused to say definitively what the value of the point was, preferring to defer that question until the end of the season. He said that the goal conceded before the break obliged his side to be much more open and attacking in the second half, although it was United who had by far the better chances on the counter attack.
The Arsenal goal was a beauty, worked forward from Van Persie’s mistake which conceded possession. The ball reached Tomas Rosicky in three passes and he slipped it through a very square backline to Walcott, very marginally offside, who beat David De Gea from a tightish angle with the sheer power of his shot. From that point it looked promising for Arsenal as Phil Dowd began booking players at will.
In defence of the referee he got the two big calls right. Bacary Sagna’s trip on Van Persie, after he had tried to win back the ball he had lazily given away, was a clear penalty. So too was a handball by Antonio Valencia just outside the area in the second half, rather than inside as the Arsenal players protested. That said, all the yellow cards in the first half were something of a hostage to fortune.
Sagna should have gone for a second yellow card in the second half when he fouled Patrice Evra but by then Dowd was in a more forgiving mood. Before then, Van Persie was booked for a foul on Per Mertesacker and was denied by a fine save from Wojciech Szczesny at close range.
When he stepped up to take the penalty even Wenger was forced to admit that he was “80 per cent” certain the player would score.
By the end of the game there had been eight bookings, five of them for United players, a little excessive in the circumstances and indicative of the bar being set quite low early on by Dowd. Ferguson complained about that but the manner in which he burst out of his seat in protest at a shoulder charge by Aaron Ramsey on Nani early in the game suggested he was taking this one seriously.
Wayne Rooney was substituted again by Ferguson on another very quiet day for the striker. He directed a header straight at Szczesny before the hour. In the closing stages, Rio Ferdinand was perhaps fortunate to get away with a challenge on Kieran Gibbs that might have been a penalty. Ryan Giggs came on and had a rare shot with his right foot.
At the end of the game, Van Persie resisted the goading, albeit pretty low-key, from the Arsenal fans who waited around the tunnel to boo him.
Wenger said later that the club’s former captain had come into the dressing room to see his old team-mates and the Arsenal manager was quite happy about that.
It is difficult to see a player who left United in similarly bitter circumstances being granted the same privilege by Ferguson but that is far from the only difference between these two clubs.