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How Arteta’s Tactical Tweaks Saw Arsenal Past Sheffield United and Into 30th FA Cup Semi-Final – Tactical Analysis


Both Arsenal and Sheffield United came into this FA Cup Quarter Final match in need of a catalyst to kickstart their restarted season. Arsenal were off the back of beating Southampton, looked to add a second win to their post-restart season.

With the FA Cup being Arsenal’s most viable chance to clinch European football for next season, Mikel Arteta started a strong side and took little chance in the tie. This post-match analysis will analyse aspects of the match.

Formations and Line-ups

Sheffield United vs Arsenal - Post Match Analysis

In response to Sheffield United’s strengths, Mikel Arteta once again chose to deploy a 3-4-3. Notably, Tierney took the left wing-back position and Kolašinac moved to the left-sided centre-back position. Joe Willock partnered Granit Xhaka, but spent most of his time more advanced, supporting the front three. Aubameyang was on the bench with Lacazette leading the line.

Chris Wilder set his team up in a 3-5-2. Sheffield United maintained a tight, compact shape which applied great pressure and intensity on the opposition. The aim was to force mistakes in areas where Sheffield United could punish their opponents. Both United strikers McBurnie and McGoldrick, are comfortable coming to feet, holding up the ball and running in behind the defensive shape, giving United attacking flexibility.


Arsenal, when they pressed, looked to do so with Lacazette, Saka, and Pepe very narrowly in their 3-4-3. They looked to prevent passes from the defenders into the midfielders. Willock attached himself to the dangerous deep-lying midfielder, Oliver Norwood, when the ball was central. When Lacazette went to close down Henderson, Willock would leave Norwood and fill the gap between the narrow wingers and reform the tight three. Should United play the ball out wide, Tierney or Maitland-Niles would engage. Xhaka would also come across and one of the front three would help triple mark the Sheffield player. A lot of the times, the industrious Willock would also help close down out wide.

Sheffield United looked to press Arsenal man for man, when in the Arsenal half. As soon the ball transitioned to the Sheffield United half, the blades opted to zonally defend their positions. By pressing Arsenal man for man in the Gunners’ half, United looked to force mistakes and prevent the ball carrier from having time and space through collective pressure. When an Arsenal player had the ball, if he was not immediately contested and he had time on the ball, the Sheffield United players would lock onto their direct opponents and track them if they made forward runs. If the Arsenal player being marked dropped towards the ball carrier, the United player would maintain his line. This was to prevent space being unlocked with quick combination play. By contesting the ball carrier as United did, United are making a close ball situation and can close the space between the lines.

Sheffield United vs Arsenal - Post Match Analysis

This image shows Sheffield United pressing when Kolašinac had the ball. When the ball was in the Arsenal half, Sheffield United picked their direct rival and pressed high. They didn’t want Arsenal to receive the ball and have time and space to pick their passes or turn towards goal. United are very good at forcing the ball receiver to not turn towards their goal

Sheffield’s set-pieces

From early on, Chris Wilder’s side attempted to test Arsenal’s defence with physical set-plays. Jack Robinson’s long-throw after just 12 minutes, caused havoc in the Arsenal box and was an omen of what was to come. In total, Robinson had four long throw-ins, each one causing Arsenal difficulties and the final one, facilitated David McGoldrick’s goal.

Sheffield United, despite only scoring from two corners this season, cause great difficulties for their opponents. On average they play it towards the far post, for usually McBurnie to head it back across. They then aim to pile in at the far post with the physical John Lundstram fighting for the header. Again, this caused Arsenal difficulty and if it wasn’t for a correct VAR call, Arsenal would have been behind.

Arsenal’s patterns

Arsenal worked really hard to move the ball fluidly around the pitch. All the Arsenal players showed for the ball with their body positioning side on, ready to receive and then effectively progress it up the pitch. This has been a noticeable improvement for Arsenal since Arteta joined: Arsenal’s players constantly looking for the ball, looking at who’s around them, and where their teammates are. Once receiving the ball they look to play combinations and positional rotations. The positional rotations aimed to get players beyond the midfield and defensive lines and in a position to play a final pass to an attacker.

The front three and Willock were constantly interchanging and dropping into midfield looking to play quick give-and-goes and beat their man.

Lacazette regularly came deep with Willock and Saka. They either looked to play combinations among one another or go long to Pepe and Teirney, who had held a high wide attacking position. The idea was that if Lacazette, Willock, and Saka came deep and no one tracked them, they would then create great numerical advantages and could easily progress the ball around. If they were tracked, then the Sheffield United defence would become completely disjointed. There would then be a long pass on for the widest players who could use their pace to get in behind the Sheffield United defensive shape. This worked on occasion, however, Arsenal mainly opted for the combinations over the long pass.

Sheffield United vs Arsenal - Post Match Analysis

This image highlights Lacazette, Saka and Willock dropping to receive the pass. The image highlights how disjointed Arsenal made Sheffield’s defensive line. If Arsenal could have played quicker, then they could have got Tierney and Pepe in on goal with a long pass. This image shows, Lacazette receiving the pass from Kolašinac and passed to Saka who got fouled

Arsenal’s width

Down Arsenal’s left, Tierney held the width. He looked to receive passes from Kolašinac, Xhaka, and Saka. Of Tierney’s 6 crosses, 5 of them were low and driven towards the penalty spot for either a midfielder, Lacazette, or Pepe to meet. Pepe often looked to come in off the right and shoot with his left foot first time. It was rare that the players in the box were static waiting for the cross. They were always looking to meet the ball, at the right moment.

Down both flanks, attacking the penalty box, Lacazette, Willock, and Saka would look to pin the Sheffield United defensive line. This was how Arsenal won their penalty. Tierney fired the ball into Lacazette, who had pinned Chris Basham before he tripped the Arsenal man. On the right, Ainsley Maitland-Niles then looked to make underlapping runs and drag defenders away, whilst Pepe was touchline-tight. This helped open space inside for Pepe to attack.

From there, Pepe would look to find one of the Arsenal attackers with a diagonal or vertical pass. Sheffield United dealt with this well, with one of their strikers tucking into midfield and restoring midfield balance. Willock would at times come short and offer an option to play rotations from. Ceballos’ goal actually came from overlapping Pepe in the penalty area and slotting past Dean Henderson.

Arsenal’s Defensive frailties

Arsenal’s defending was at times pathetic – in the forms of a lack of authority, missed headers, poor tackles, and woeful clearances. This was compounded by Kolašinac winning just 22% of his 9 defensive challenges. Tierney won 40% of his 10 defensive challenges. Mustafi and Luiz won 65% and 75% respectively of their respective 17 and 8 defensive challenges, whilst Maitland-Niles won 100% of 5 defensive challenges. Again, Kolašinac struggled aerially, winning 17% of his 6 aerial battles. Kolašinac won 1 of his 3 tackles, and Tierney 2 of his 4.

Sheffield United vs Arsenal - Post Match Analysis

This graph shows the defensive output of the Arsenal back three. Mustafi had the highest defensive output and made 14 aerial challenges, winning 9. Luiz won 100% of their 3 tackles in the game. Luiz’s low numbers could be down to him playing 61 minutes, rather than Kolašinac and Mustafi’s 103



In conclusion, Mikel Arteta made very good tactical tweaks to his side in response to the characteristics of Sheffield United. It will be interesting to see if Arteta uses the 3-4-3 going forward, or if it’s just a solution against teams who play with two strikers. The game was a typical Arsenal game since the restart – there was some encouragement once Arsenal got through their initial difficulties, got composed, and began their passing game. They looked a lot more assured. Arsenal’s defensive woes did continue and there was little sign of improvement to them as the game wore on. It was really important for Arsenal to beat their man and win their duels. They had to be brave rather than passively pass and give Sheffield encouragement with their press. Arsenal were very poor defensively, however, this is nothing new.

Arsenal needed to first and foremost win this game and they did. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was vital. There is lots of encouragement to be had in the game, as Arsenal executed Arteta’s tactical instructions relatively well.

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