Arsenal fail to find cutting edge as Blades steal a point
The weekend’s entertainment at the Emirates saw Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United travel to the capital to take on Mikel Arteta’s improving Arsenal side. Unlike Arsenal, Sheffield United have far outperformed expectations, finding themselves in sixth place heading into Saturday’s fixture. In the reverse fixture, I had the misfortune of attending with a Blades fan, and watching a dour 1-0 defeat. Needless to say, I was hoping for a different outcome this time around.
In the absence of any recognised full-backs, Arteta continued to deploy Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in these positions. The system which Arteta currently favours sees neither actually occupy full-back berths in possession, whilst out of possession they are competent enough to defend against most wingers. Top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was sitting out the first of a three-game ban, a consequence of his horror challenge on Crystal Palace midfielder Max Meyer. In his stead, Gabriel Martinelli occupied the left-hand side. Martinelli has taken to football at Arsenal like a duck to water, and has the makings of a superstar (something I shall return to later). Shkodran Mustafi also replaced an unwell Sokratis at centre-back, partnering David Luiz, which sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.
It nearly did. Sheffield United started the brighter side, and six minutes in Mustafi was robbed of possession on his own byline, trying to shepherd the ball into touch. Fortunately for him, nothing came of it, but the early signs were not positive. His mistake was symptomatic of Arsenal’s early performance, as the majority of the players seemed a yard of the pace, a dangerous proposition against a lively United side. The Blades were finding space in between defence and midfield far too easily, whilst Arsenal looked pedestrian any time they found themselves with possession.
Chances for Arsenal came, however. Alexandre Lacazette slipped in Nicolas Pepe, whose cross to the back post was met by Martinelli, the Brazilian shooting wide. Martinelli was the shining light of an otherwise largely dull affair, and after miscuing another chance, he reaped the rewards of fantastic positioning to steer home Saka’s deflected cross. Twelve goal contributions in less than 900 minutes for Arsenal highlights the 18-year-old’s promise, and Aubameyang himself took to Twitter to buy into the hype. Whilst not yet the finished article, he is a player Arsenal may struggle to keep hold of in the coming years.
The second half saw Arsenal dominate possession but fail to create a great deal. Nicolas Pepe, once again the man looking most likely to do so, was denied a stonewall penalty after going over Jack O’Connell’s outstretched leg. VAR looked at it, and promptly, to widespread disbelief, sided with Mike Dean. The Gunner’s failure to kill the game off came back to haunt them when John Fleck fired a beautifully controlled half-volley past Leno to level the scores. It may have taken a slight deflection off of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, but take nothing away from the strike. Arsenal found themselves soaking up the majority of the pressure towards the end of the game, and although they could have taken all three points, a draw was probably the fairest result.
In many ways, the Arsenal performance demonstrated the strides forwards that Arteta has already made. Despite fielding out-of-position full-backs and a pair of defenders well-known for their tendency for brain-fades, the Gunners were largely untroubled- a reflection of the defensive work Arteta has done in making the side harder to break down. The caveat to this is the attack, which is currently misfiring. Lacazette is going through a goalscoring drought, whilst Nicolas Pepe is still adjusting to the pace of the Premier League. With no real chance of goals from midfield, and Mesut Ozil contributing just one assist so far this season, it is difficult to see where Arsenal’s goals will come from.
A word on VAR- I cannot understand the point of its interference if it is not sure that it can get it right. Nicolas Pepe’s penalty claim being waved away was the latest in a long line of claims going against Arsenal, including chalking off Arsenal’s winner against Crystal Palace at the Emirates and allowing a Watford goal after Cleverley was shown to be impeding the penalty area. That is not to place blame on VAR for Arsenal’s predicament, but it feels very much a case of when it rains it pours, and the little bits of luck Arsenal desperately need are simply not going their way. They would not drastically change matters, but would alleviate some of the pressure on both players and manager.
Overall, it was not a terrible result for Arsenal, but given the position they put themselves in they will have been disappointed not to see the game out, a worrying trend that is beginning to show itself in this side. The failure in attack to score more than one is placing great pressure on the defence, and one mistake, as Leno showed against Chelsea, can change the outlook of the entire fixture. Next up for Arsenal is a trip to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea once again, with a win really necessary if any thoughts of the top four are to be kept alive.