On a weekend when goals were plentiful, with Spurs and Aston Villa feasting on the flesh of Manchester United and Liverpool, Arsenal were unlikely to replicate those dizzy heights against a battered and bruised Sheffield United. The Arsenal vs Sheffield fixture was always going to be a hard-fought tussle, with the Gunners barely recovering from their two tussles against Liverpool and the Blades deep in the gloom of a pointless campaign and in the grips of relegation after just four games.
Sheffield had taken four points off the gunners last season but their form this term suggested more of a struggle. For Arsenal, the surprises came with the inclusion of Nketiah, Luiz, and Elneny and the omissions of Xhaka, Holding, and Lacazette.
Nketiah had an early sniff at goal from a delightful looking ball across the field that split the visitor’s defence, but the youngster found himself out too wide and fell over trying to get the ball and himself back into a decent position.
With just four minutes on the clock, David Luiz, who flits between excellence and disaster, had an obvious shirt pull on Burke that could have resulted in another red card to add to his collection. In all fairness, it was fellow Brazilian Gabriel, who played the pass short and allowed the Sheffield man to put the squeeze on Arsenal’s number 23.
These ‘blips’ are a side of the Brazilian’s game that are always of concern. He is a great ball-player and has a wealth of experience at his disposal, but sometimes Luiz lapses into the role of an excitable poodle chasing a ball in the local park. No damage was done as nothing was given but on another day, Arsenal could have been a man down.
This contest was a scrappy affair at times but if Arsenal were to get anything out of the Arsenal vs Sheffield game, they would have to dig deep and be patient. The Blades were keeping a decent shape and were covering the pitch in numbers, limiting the opportunities to relatively slim pickings. Ceballos was busy trying to instigate things, but neither Elneny nor Xhaka are compatible in terms of quality and the Spaniard had to operate for long periods on his own.
The Gunners were a little left-sided for the first ten minutes and needed to vary the play a bit more just to set the Sheffield nerves jangling. By the same token, the visitors seemed a little static, flat, and unsure as they came forward. They were making space and had intent, but the final ball was lacking in precision and penetration.
A botched clearance by Sheffield gave Aubameyang a long-distance poke at goal which was tipped over (35). 2 minutes later, Berge was given a yellow for trying to detach the striker’s foot. The Sheffield man’s studs dragged across the Gabon goalscorer’s shin and Berge was lucky not to have received a red. VAR? It must have had the day off or both sides would have been a man short.
For as much glamour as there, undoubtedly, is in the Premiership, some games require fortitude and grit, the Arsenal vs Sheffield was one of those and the game changed from a sedate, almost snoozy affair in the space of 20 minutes when Arsenal suddenly realised there were three points at stake.
Pepe replaced Nketiah (57) and this proved to be a crucial move in the greater scheme of things. The Frenchman is often criticised for having only one foot but when he moves at pace, that foot is sublime, more on that later.
Saka capped a sensational 12 months with a perfect back-post header to give the Gunners the lead with a typical Arsenal goal (61). Willian to Pepe, on to Elneny who passed to Aubameyang, the striker slipped it to Bellerin and the Spaniard’s cross was perfect. Pepe, looked rather a handful as he did at Anfield and there was something special brewing as the Gunners forced the game.
63 minutes and a move that included 17 passes, the first from Bern Leno, ended when Elneny put the ball through to Bellerin wide on the right, the Spaniard slipped the ball forward to Pepe. The Frenchman accelerated and had to cut through three green shirts delivering an inch-perfect finish, low into the bottom right of the Sheffield net.
Arsenal hit the cruise control button and seemed less eager to chase the ball or shut down space. As a result, McGoldrick powered the ball through with his left foot beyond a flying Leno (82). Arteta will be annoyed that his defence had shown a sizeable lapse in concentration, but the performance in the Arsenal vs Sheffield game as a whole was reasonably good.
On reflection, there were troubling signs for Arsenal that the manager still needs to solve. Aubameyang still lacks service and perhaps, needs to be in the middle to get the maximum from him and Willian hasn’t shone since the opening game, where he justified Arteta’s faith in him. Willian is often far too deep and hasn’t had the freedom to find his captain as often as he would like but given time, it will happen frequently.
Meanwhile, for all the talk of gaps in this Arsenal side, Gabriel looks like he’s been with them for years, confident, assured, and composed, with the slick distribution. There are shades of Sol Campbell about this lad, not in terms of physique, but in his ability to snuff out danger and be in the right place at the right time.
Three wins out of four and hopefully, Arteta will strengthen his midfield and give Cabellos more licence to get forward.