Arsenal came out victorious in a nervy encounter against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. The 2-1 win against the Blades has sent the Gunners to the FA Cup semi-final, where they will face Manchester City.
The FA Cup has always been a competition that stands alone. Form and stature mean nothing and it doesn’t matter how much either squad costs, there is no disparity whatsoever in this fixture.
Yes, the FA Cup has sadly been devalued over the years and is tantamount to the crumbs at the top table for the clubs chasing promotion, standing still or those unable to reach the summit of the Premier League. There is still an intrigue about it no matter how diluted, based purely on its history and the romance associated with it.
Whilst looking at Arsenal’s form before the game at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United, it looked like a fixture that had come around too soon for the Gunners but at least, it’s a competition that have had plenty of pedigree in.
Arsenal needed this more than Sheffield United just to keep the momentum going in the Premier League and establish some rhythm. The Gunners have seemed slightly stagnant since the reboot of the Premier League and hardly any neutral thinks that they are cable of Champions League qualification.
Sheffield United have been one of the surprise packages of the season, more than able to hold their own against the big boys by playing their brand of attacking football. However, Arsenal have been encouraged by Sheffield’s recent blip against Villa, Newcastle and Manchester United and the Gunners probably considered that the game was reasonably even before the whistle.
The stage was set for an unpredictable topsy turvy tie and the first signs were that Arsenal could be very vulnerable at the back with Mustafi and Luiz installed in an unexpected back three with Kolasinac. Thankfully, Kieran Tierney was able to start after sustaining a tweak on his last outing.
Elsewhere, no Özil again or Guendouzi and one suspect that both could be facing the exit door with Arteta’s palm placed firmly on their back. Martinez kept the gloves in the Arsenal goal and Willock and Xhaka held the midfield with Maitland-Niles on the right flank and Tierney on the left. Up the top Lacazette, Pepe and Saka were in search of goals with Aubameyang looking on from the stands.
There was a fair bit of drama in this FA Cup match with two disallowed goals for the home side, a Pepe penalty, Luiz taken off injured after an hour, a deserved equaliser and a late Dani Ceballos winner from an almost impossible angle.
Ten minutes in and Sheffield United were disappointed not to be 1-0 up with Lundstram finding the net from a McBurnie nod back but in my opinion, it was an obvious offside. A slightly relieved Arsenal carried on playing their bizarre crossfield/ back passing game which has become a feature of late.
By the 20th minute, Pepe and Saka were starting to settle and the Frenchman dashed up and down the right side with genuine purpose and you felt his growing influence. There are signs that the £72m player likes the company of Lacazette, whom he was constantly looking for as he dashed in from the flank.
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Pepe stepped up to take a full shot low trajectory penalty (24) after Basham, clearly living up to his name, appeared to clatter the French striker from behind just inside the area. VAR agreed with Paul Tierney’s decision (no relation to Kieran)
Pepe was denied a second by Henderson, who got down quickly as if his legs had disintegrated. There is growing evidence that Pepe could become a bit of a nuisance for defences in his second season, once his confidence matches his ability.
McGoldrick was a constant tormentor of the Gunners’ makeshift defensive and one assumed that if anyone was going to get themselves a goal, it would be him. He got his reward in the 87th minute when Arsenal went all flappy from a throw-in and reverted to type. Everyone in yellow watched the ball and as it came down, it fell to Kolasinac, who inexplicably booted the ball across his own area. A ricochet off Mustafi took it on to the Sheffield United player who made no mistake. Game on at this point with the home side in ascendency.
Arsenal had shown discipline and organisation, but other than Tierney, Pepe, and Saka, they didn’t look like a side that was brimming with an enterprise. Just as the hope of an automatic semi-final place was fading, Nketiah, who had replaced Lacazette, linked up with two of Arsenal’s other young guns to offer a glimpse of the flowing football that the Gunners used to offer up every week during the ’90s.
Saka burst through the middle, fed Nketiah, who threaded a through ball wide right to Pepe. This time the winger couldn’t pull off a purposeful move with his back to goal. Ceballos galloped forward (90+1), picked up the ball, and finished the move from the most acute angle.
That last gasp goal against the run of play at least showed that Arsenal aren’t completely lost and that their kids can deliver. Let’s not get carried away though, the Gunners need a genuine playmaker with the ability to make Arteta’s men look more fluent and polished.
Now Manchester City awaits and despite the negativity of some Arsenal fans, a surprise is often never far away in the FA Cup. Fingers crossed.