Improving Arsenal Fall Short Against Sheffield United Again: Analysis

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Arsenal Sheffield United
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 18: Mikel Arteta the Arsenal Head Coach before the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Sheffield United at Emirates Stadium on January 18, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Arsenal slumped to a one-all draw at home against Sheffield United on Saturday to further compound their miserable season. To be fair, the Gunners bossed the match at times, but at others allowed the newly-promoted Blades to dictate play. Overall, it was a performance typical of the struggles the team has had this year.

Arsenal Sheffield United Analysis

Early Struggles

As expected, Chris Wilder’s men came to the Emirates ready to play. Their organisation and team spirit saw them dictate the early stages of the match and Sheffield United made Arsenal look like the away side at times.

Lys Mousset had the best chance of these early minutes with a free header from near the penalty spot. Luckily he was not only called erroneously for offside but he also got underneath the ball too much and sent it well over the bar.

However, the Gunners did grow into the game as the first half wore on. One of the reasons for this was the tireless performance of Nicolas Pepe as well as some good support from Alexandre Lacazette.

Another was a tactical switch from Mikel Arteta. When his side got the ball, he allowed Bukayo Saka to roam forward to join in the build-up and attack while Granit Xhaka dropped back into the defence.

This, combined with Ainsley Maitland-Niles pressing forward on the right, forced Sheffield United back and allowed Arsenal to retain possession far better. It wasn’t quite a formation change but the tactical shift made the team play with a sort of back three that allowed an overload in midfield to compete with the Blades’ five-man formation there.

At that point, Arsenal began to turn the tide.

Inconsistent But Better

Arsenal’s goal came from a good spell of possession and an overload. Mesut Ozil, who was heavily involved on the day and looked somewhat akin to his former self, released Saka on the left.

The wide man then found a small bit of space in the box and chipped a dangerous ball towards Gabriel Martinelli, who timed his run to perfection. The result was an easy chip in which was reminiscent of Wengerball.

That strike came just before the half and after the resumption of play, Arsenal continued their dominance over Sheffield United. Pepe was particularly impressive in the second half as the Blades chased the match.

The Ivorian’s technical ability, speed and imagination was set free due to the extra room available to him from Sheffield’s high pressing. He beat man after man on the ball and created a lot of headaches for the visitors.

Pepe almost earned his side a penalty after tempting an errant leg to fly out and catch his leg. However, referee Mike Dean as well as VAR came together to reject the penalty claim, likely because it appeared that Pepe ran into the defender’s legs.

Arteta’s men seemed to have the result in the bag but allowed their minds to wander. The result was, predictably, a conceded goal late on after being in control for large portions of the second half.

However, as evidenced by the penalty claim, Arsenal did have the chance to put at least one more past Sheffield United. Their inability to play a full 90 minutes cost them two points again.

Who To Blame?

Certainly some blame should go to Unai Emery. The Spaniard did not do enough to prepare his side for the physical or mental challenges ahead during the season. That is according to his own players.

However, the former Paris Saint-Germain boss has been gone for a while. The players themselves are the ones out there on the pitch and it is their responsibility to keep themselves and their teammates mentally engaged in the play.

Mikel Arteta, as the head coach, will get some share of the blame as well. He may be new but he is ultimately responsible for results on the pitch. He is also responsible for cleaning up the mess so to speak.

It must be said, meanwhile, that the former Manchester City assistant is doing what he can to at least turn the team’s attitude around. Compared to under Emery, Arsenal were far more unified against Sheffield United.

There was relatively little blaming going on during the match with players, especially David Luiz, instead trying to motivate their teammates and at least trying to stay mentally positive, even when the play was negative.

Stand Out Performances From Arsenal Against Sheffield United

First and foremost Gabriel Martinelli proved against Sheffield United that he is Arsenal’s bargain of the season. He cost just £6 million from Ituano in the summer and has already paid back the club in spades.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said it the best:

He shirked a couple of shots wide but he never let that get him down. The Brazilian teenager kept his composure and kept trying and eventually got his goal.

Mesut Ozil had a good match as well. He continually dropped back and exploited the space he was given to link play fairly well between defence and attack. He could be credited with a pre-assist to the goal, underlining his resurgence under Mikel Arteta.

While some will give him stick for his defending, Bukayo Saka showed why he’s gotten chances with the first-team this season. He was as matured as some of the veteran players and didn’t beat himself up after his defensive errors.

Saka also took advantage of the aforementioned tactical change and got forward well. He had a few dangerous passes in the match, none more so than his assist on Arsenal’s only goal of the afternoon.

Finally, Nicolas Pepe had a good match as well. This is especially true in the second half when he had more space to work with and got to dribble with the ball at his feet. It was very difficult to track how many players he beat this way but he certainly gave the defenders a head ache.

Looking Ahead

Arsenal had hoped to go into their next match with some momentum from Saturday’s encounter with Sheffield United. Next up is Chelsea away on Tuesday evening, which will be a very difficult ask for this side.

It is yet another tough ask for Mikel Arteta early on in his managerial tenure, especially after two consecutive draws. With his side in anonymous form, he will have to find a rabbit in his hat to take three points.

However, he and the entire team should take at least some positives from Saturday’s draw. They are more unified than under Emery, better organised and overall just seem more confident.

Time will only tell if that can be translated into consistent performances and results.

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