Five things We Learned As Arsenal Defeat Sheffield United
Just when Arsenal had slipped up and stared down the barrel of a nerve-riven period of extra time, Dani Ceballos scored a brilliant late winner to send the Gunners through to the FA Cup semi-finals.
After a lethargic start, where Sheffield United wasted a number of chances and had a goal disallowed, Nicolas Pepe punished the Blades from the penalty spot after a mindless foul on Alexandre Lacazette.
With the game ebbing away from Chris Wilder’s side in the second half, though, David McGoldrick finally punished Arsenal’s unconvincing defence and scored an equaliser from close-range with just three minutes remaining.
But with Arsenal clinging on in stoppage time, a clinical breakaway saw Ceballos skip through on goal and beat Dean Henderson at his near post to send the Gunners into the semi-final.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
1. Sheffield fail to capitalise on Arsenal’s sluggish start
Is it possible that the carnival of frustration – and even hate – that had consumed Arsenal’s fanbase has actually been missed? The usual blur of tension and anticipation, excitement and angst that filters through towards the players has, of course, been muted by the restart. And, in each of their four fixtures, Mikel Arteta’s side have started at a lethargic, almost casual pace.
At Bramall Lane, the first 15 minutes were largely reduced to a slow-motion onslaught from the home side. McGoldrick broke through on goal dangerously twice; Jack Robinson dragged a shot wide from inside the box before John Lundstram’s header, after a well-worked set-piece routine, was ruled out by VAR for offside.
When the penalty came, it was a cruel blow of misfortune. The tackle itself, a rake at Alexandre Lacazette’s ankles, was needless with the striker facing away from goal on the edge of the box and forced the Blades to chase a game they’d taken a strong foothold in.
2. Pepe crafts talent into consistency
Nicolas Pepe’s £72m start to life in England has been a series of small explosions with delayed aftershocks. There were the two goals in 15 minutes against Vitoria, his winner against Manchester United, that signature liquid whip of his left foot against West Ham.
But each time his irresistible but elusive talent has come to the fore, it’s been followed by a hollow period. A laziness in defence, a lack of clarity when attempting to play the final ball, the lingering gait of a player who hasn’t always enjoyed his introduction to English football.
But after another fantastic goal against Brighton, this was, perhaps, Pepe’s most complete performance for Arsenal. One that tantalised his role in this Arsenal side becoming an indispensable outlet, the greatest spark in the absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as opposed to an expensive and inconsistent question mark.
After calmly scoring the penalty to give Arsenal the lead, the winger tracked back tirelessly in defence and pressed immediately after his side lost possession. Going forwards, a box of skill, feints and shimmies that Sheffield struggled to block out, he was a constant threat cutting inside off the right touchline.
3. Full-backs flourish in Arteta’s favoured formation
It is, seemingly, Arteta’s answer to Arsenal’s slapdash defence. A 3-4-3, with Sead Kolasinac – once considered too liable to play as a full-back – filling in at left centre-half for the injured Pablo Mari and Ainsley Maitland-Niles – who has publicly reiterated he’s not a defender – replacing Hector Bellerin at right wing-back.
The type of ingrained errors, the mindless moments where Arsenal seem to switch off in unison, were still present. They should have been punished when Chris Basham skewed his free header wide with the goal beckoning. They were lucky, again, when Sheffield United had another goal ruled out narrowly for offside, while Oli McBurnie found space in behind far too often. Finally, though, they received their dues, as McGoldrick punished Kolasinac’s woeful clearance to score a late equaliser.
With those caveats in place, though, there were still clearly improvements, too. In particular, the way in which the formation affords freedom to the full-backs. Kieran Tierney continues to impress after a difficult start to his time at the club, while Maitland-Niles immediately formed a profitable relationship with Pepe on the opposite flank.
What appeared to be a hamstring injury suffered by David Luiz in the second half may hamper Arsenal’s ability to continue utilising the same shape going forwards, but there is at least a clearer blueprint for the future.
4. Sheffield United fail to recapture former selves
Three games. One goal. Zero wins. The initial surprise – and then relentless consistency – that greeted Sheffield before the break has failed to return with them. There were glimmers, at least, in this game. A sleekness going forwards and several dangerous balls behind Arsenal’s defence that should have been punished.
But the perfectly wired machine, that utilised every inch of Wilder’s talented squad, is showing signs of rust. Now, with only the Premier League to concentrate on, and hopes of a top-four spot already lessened to a Europa League place, they need to rediscover that killer instinct before their hard work slips through their fingers without just reward.
5. Ozil and Guendouzi ostracised
Where is Mesut Ozil? Location unknown. Last seen sitting in the stands at St Mary’s, parasol aloft, legs crossed without a care in the world. The ostracised German didn’t even travel for a fixture marked as an obvious moment for his protracted return. The problem, though, is in Arsenal’s current system, regardless of personality, professionalism or otherwise, there is seemingly no place for Ozil, who has receded from a half-hearted presence to an invisible burden.
Mikel Arteta, despite a softer stance in public, has clearly made his decision. Addressing the cultural problem at Arsenal is top of the head coach’s agenda and, despite Ozil’s popularity and obvious talent, he is not the first to decide that the German is better confined to a problematic past than a brighter future.
At the other end of the spectrum, with a player still in the embryonic stages of his career, a similar fate could be awaiting Matteo Guendouzi.
After being handed what could unofficially be described as an ultimatum by Arteta, following the 20-year-old’s tantrum and sniping against Brighton, he has now been left out of back-to-back matchday squads. His attitude is under reckoning and, so far, there is still no sign of a way back.