Arsenal and Manchester United face a busy summer in Chelsea's shadow

Arsenal’s 45 minutes of intent revealed a little of why there are not an overwhelming number of pieces still to fit together

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The Independent Football

Louis van Gaal, the Manchester United manager, gave the most graphic sense yet of the task they face in keeping David de Gea from Real Madrid’s clutches last night, admitting Spain is already a major part of the goalkeeper’s private life.

The Manchester United manager laughed nervously, persisted and got his words out in the end. He offered only a statement of fact – “Dear friends… next year we will support each other again” – before what the stadium announcer Alan Keegan described as a “lap of appreciation”.

How far removed this felt from those turns of the pitch Sir Alex Ferguson would lead in what seemed to be like eternal sunshine, players throwing the trophy between each other. The only silverware on this pitch was the Premier League Under-21 trophy and both sides looked a long way from the place where they can lay claim to the senior issue.

United were what United are: a side reviving, offering flashes of promise, but with plenty of players who do not possess enough to go the final mile beyond Chelsea.

 

Arsenal were what Arsenal are: a side with more balance and structure than United’s – more like the finished product – but without the faintest notion of how to deal with a serious physical force in an opponent.

When United went to Stamford Bridge on a roll a month ago, intent on making a statement, they found a Jose Mourinho obsessed with the job of shutting down Marouane Fellaini. Chelsea cancelled out the threat and eased past their opponents on the way to the trophy.

The Arsenal side who struggled to summon the remotest effort for half this game – or “too timid, conservative in possession, too far from each other,” as manager Arsène Wenger described it – clearly lacked a modicum of preparation for Fellaini.

Their defenders were transfixed by his presence when Ashley Young’s fizzing left-foot cross on the half-hour went in and the entirely overlooked Ander Herrera, lurking behind it, was ready to volley the opening goal. For half of the game, Fellaini drew away defenders to leave space for others to do the damage.

Arsenal’s 45 minutes of intent revealed a little of why there are not an overwhelming number of pieces still to fit together. Some precision and vision in their distribution from deep by Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla who, with Alexis Sanchez, give substance to Wenger’s claim last night that they have made progress across the past nine months and are “stronger against the bigger teams”. 

United have the bigger job to do. Their own nine months have constituted progress too, though the distinct pessimism Van Gaal professed last night about the lure of Spain for David de Gea belongs to a broader uncertainty about some of the substantial parts in his United squad.

The final home game provided a finality about Radamel Falcao’s inadequacy for the task in hand. The first chance of the game – from one of the geometrical Juan Mata balls which bisect a defence – illustrated the deficit in Falcao’s strength and response times, as the split second required to react to the opportunity came and went. Someone tweeted that he offers the “opposite of a burst of pace,” which was as good a way as any of putting it.

The pronounced wave Falcao gave when he was substituted, after barely a second more than an hour, felt valedictory, though there was little more intent from Robin van Persie, while the other individual whose threat United had anticipated being part of the fabric of the Premier League, Angel Di Maria, did not even leave the bench.

With Michael Carrick’s absence leaving no player at the back of midfield capable of consistently breaking the lines with a pass, the challenge of getting anything resembling their money back on Di Maria feels like one United would be better parking this summer. They have other things to worry about.

Developing £59.7m record signings has never been Van Gaal’s strong suit in any case. It is finding and restoring players in places where nobody looked, which is why another signature performance from Young – bursting between substitute Jack Wilshere and Coquelin as if they were ghosts just beyond 70 minutes – is one reason to be cheerful in this part of Manchester.

The season is over for both managers. Arsenal require a point to avoid a Champions League qualifying round for once and to commit United to that penury.  There is only one team on their minds. Wenger made an unconvincing attempt to project indifference about Chelsea, by clipping their name in last on the list of four teams he believes will come back strongly in August. Van Gaal just came clean. “I think the difference between Chelsea and Manchester United at this moment is that they can finish a game,” he said. “They can kill the game. I don’t think Arsenal can do that either. That is the difference.”

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