Result: Arsenal 2 – 1 Sheffield United
Competition: Premier League
Date: 4 October 2020
Venue: The Emirates Stadium
Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Ceballos, Elneny, Saka, Willian, Aubameyang, Nketiah
Subs: Runarsson, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Willock, Xhaka, Pepe, Lacazette
Arsenal took all 3 points at home against Sheffield United in a game where they dominated for most of the 90 minutes. After a turgid first half, Pepe’s 56th minute introduction inspired Arsenal to two quick fire goals from Saka and the Ivorian.
Arsenal were made to sweat a little during the last 10 minutes as McGoldrick scored one for the visitors but the home side saw out the game confidently to win another match in what has been a positive start to the season so far.
After a positive mid-week result against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, Mikel Arteta retained half of his starting line-up for a tough league home game against Sheffield United.
In defense, Cedric, Holding and Kolasinac made way for Bellerin, Luiz and Tierney while a mobile duo of Elneny and Ceballos were deployed in the centre of the park. In attack, Nketiah’s quick feet were preferred to Lacazette as he was flanked by the experience pair of Aubemeyang and Willian.
Both teams started out the game tentatively, slowly prodding the ball, looking for gaps in each other’s formation. It looked very much like a back two in a very aggressive Arsenal line-up with Luiz and Gabriel anchoring the defence while Bellerin and Tierney pushed high up. Saka looked to find space as the third central midfielder in the left hand channel while Elneny dropped back to cover for Bellerin on the right hand side.
This high risk move almost cost Arsenal a sending off as Luiz dallied with the ball as the last man and lost it to Burke who sought to win the ball. Out of panic, Luiz made a subtle tug at Burke’s jersey to allow Leno time to rush out and sweep the ball to safety. The Brazilian was lucky that the referee was lenient this time as it could have easily been a red card.
For the first 20 minutes, it was often sterile possession by Arsenal who were lively but were no match for Sheffield’s organised set up as the visitors looked to pounce on the counter with quick overlapping runs. Part of this sterile approach was due to almost exclusively playing down the flanks, especially down the left, with the gaping chasm in the central attacking area calling out for some guile and bodies.
Th drab affair was punctuated by the fact that the game registered its first attempt on target only on 27 minutes – a tame header by Nketiah. The first glimmer of excitement came ten minutes later which came from a mistake by Sheffield’s ‘keeper, Ramsdale. His low clearance was intercepted by Ceballos who laid it off for Aubameyang. The Arsenal captain striked from a distance and his curling shot was dipping dangerously before it was tipped over the bar by Ramsdale.
Sheffield’s Berge should have seen a red with a dangerously high boot on Aubameyang which required extensive medical attention but was only deemed to have earned a yellow.
By the half time whistle, the only positive for the Gunners was that they were defensively sound but they clearly needed to inject some pace and invention in attack if they were to gain the full three points.
Emboldened by Arsenal’s blunt attack, Sheffield pushed their defensive line higher to put more pressure on the home team.
But with that came an opportunity for the Gunners 50 minutes in. Much of Arsenal’s play seemed pedestrian until Saka took the chance to roam in between the lines. From that position, he passed to Ceballos whose first time pass released Aubameyang through on goal. The captain was only inches away from contact which would have certainly been the opening goal of the match.
That moment must have sparked something in Arteta as he made a 56th minute substitution, taking off Nketiah for Pepe.
Aubameyang moved into his preferred central position, Pepe took up the right wing and Willian flitted into the hole from the left to create overloads in attack. And it was through these overloads where Arsenal made their breakthrough just minutes later.
Clever combination player by Willian, Pepe, Aubameyang and Elneny resulted in a cross from Bellerin for Saka who was lurking in the box. The young winger was left with a simple header to put Arsenal in front. 1-0
Bellerin was involved again in the next Arsenal goal just a couple of minutes later. The right back released Pepe down the wing for the Ivorian to dribble swiftly into the penalty box. The ‘keeper had no chance as Pepe expertly curled the ball into the far post to double the Gunners’ lead. 2-0
It was as if Arsenal’s play improved exponentially with an extra body in the central attacking areas. Who’d have thought?
The goals gave the Gunners an extra spring in their step and they oozed confidence as they stroked the ball around the park with Ceballos the orchestrator in possession.
Despite the comfortable groove that Arsenal were in, the visitors were not going down without a fight as they halved the deficit on 83 minutes. McGoldrick found a tiny bit of space outside the box and unleashed a wicked curler with his left foot that just evaded Leno’s grasp to make it 2-1.
Save for a dangerous McGoldrick volley with seconds to go, it was a drama-free end to the game.
The win propelled Arsenal into fourth place though for many fans, including this writer, the bigger positive was how fluid the team looked in a progressive 4-2-3-1 formation. It meant that Arsenal had more angles of attack across the pitch and was not over-reliant on building up down the wings.
Perhaps, this could be Arteta’s blueprint for future games, especially when the onus is on the team to commit to attack.