Pre-Match Review | Arsenal (A)
Arsenal vs Sheffield United - 18/01/2020
English Premier League
Sheffield United will be facing a different Arsenal under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta, but after difficult away trips to Liverpool and Manchester City, can the Blades get their away form back on track?
Last Time Out
Sheffield United 1 (Mousset 30) - 0 Arsenal - 21/10/2019
English Premier League
Mousset’s solitary goal took Sheffield United to 9th in the table and just 3 points away from the Gunners in 5th who hadn’t won away from home since Newcastle United on the opening day of the season.
Whilst still allowing them possession, the Blades were able to take the game to Unai Emery’s side which fielded a front 3 of new signing Nicolas Pépé, youngster Bukayo Saka and joint-golden-boot holder of last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Pépé missed the first and probably the easiest clear-cut chance of the game, getting his effort all wrong from 6 yards, after a counter-attack that Pépé himself had initiated.
The only goal came from a Sheffield United corner, Norwood’s delivery went to the far post, it was met by the head of Jack O’Connell who nodded it across the goal for Lys Mousset to tap in from close range. His first at Bramall Lane this season.
Not long after the goal United players and supporters appealed for a penalty for a challenge on George Baldock, but there was little in it.
The Gunners decided to get in on the act not long afterwards, they already had appeal turned down earlier in the half for some shirt pulling on Sokratis which was waved away (in all fairness, if the shoe was on the other foot, I would have been asking myself how it wasn’t a penalty) and Saka and Egan were side by side, there was minimal contact between the two, Saka made a meal of it and was booked for diving.
A long-range effort from Granit Xhaka nearly but Emery’s side level before half-time but Henderson was able to pull off one of his trademark diving saves and palm it away.
In the second half Wilder’s side nearly doubled their lead through John Fleck through an effort which hit the side netting and another which was straight at Bernd Leno which the former Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper spilled, unfortunately, McGoldrick was unable to follow it up.
The Blades were resolute in their defending, winning more duels (on the ground as well as in the air) and interceptions than Arsenal. Meaning that Dean Henderson had kept his 25th clean sheet since joining the club initially on loan at the beginning of the 2018-19 season.
What has changed since the last time we played each other?
Unai Emery was sacked on the 29th of November, following a home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League. They were 8 points adrift of the top 4 but they were also 8 points away from the relegation places.
Under Emery, it was difficult to see what sort of Arsenal we were getting. An identity crisis was to be expected after Arsene Wenger left the club (they were arguably in a crisis whilst Wenger was still there), but by the second year of Emery, there were few signs of what kind of a footballing side they were. He was profiled as a tactically meticulous coach with an eye for the smallest details, who wanted his teams to press high up the pitch - the latter was seldom seen.
The decision to freeze out Mesut Özil was supposedly a decision taken by the Emery and the board, only for him to be brought back into the fold not long after. The 3-4-1-2 formation meant you could play the German World Cup winner in his favoured position, anchored by 2 central midfielders and Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the 2 up top but where did this leave the 72 million pound signing Nicolas Pépé? A wide forward who wants to play on the right and cut in on his left foot?
Mikel Arteta was appointed as their permanent head coach on the 20th of December. Whether it be a simple case of the new manager 'bounce' or the employment of a coach who has a clear idea of what he wants to do, it appears to be a different Arsenal side to the one the Blades beat back in October.
“The work he’s done is phenomenal. He’s done some special things as well with some movements and characteristics of how he moves his team around, and the demands that he puts on his players.
What I like about a manager is when I see a team and they are a real team that fights for every single ball with their attitude and behaviour, as well as their intentions for what they want to do every time. It’s very clear what he’s trying to do, so I have big admiration for him.” - On Chris Wilder
"I've been very impressed. I've seen a lot of games and everything is prepared. Everything they do has a real sense, they are really difficult to break down. The solidarity in their team is incredible, how hard they work for each other and they have very clear principles - in attack and in defence, restarts of play, set-pieces - with what they want to do. So it will be a very difficult test. I already warned the players today." - On Sheffield United
“It’ll be a lot tougher, with the bounce of a new manager – especially one as respected as Mikel, with the work he’s done, we've looked statistically at their game and they’ve upped in many areas, in terms of duels won and distances covered. And in the games we’ve watched since Mikel took charge, they look more structured and difficult to break down.
But they also still have the flair players you’d expect them to have. No matter if they are in a transition or not, or where they are in that process, it’s still Arsenal; they still have the likes of [Alexandre] Lacazette and [Mesut] Özil. So it’ll be an extremely tough test.” - On Facing Arsenal
“Whoever they bring in in his place is going to be a world-class footballer, they have some really good young players too and whatever team they play, it’s going to be a really strong one.” - On Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Suspension
Arsenal’s Recent Form
Since Arteta’s appointment there has been an upturn in form. They’ve played 6 (5 in the league), won 2, drawn 3 and lost 1, the only defeat being the late capitulation at home to Chelsea. The win over Leeds United will have been a welcome addition considering that Arsenal will not be challenging for the title and are out of the Carabao Cup, regardless of what competition it is the more games they win, the more they will improve. The Emirates hasn’t been a fortress this year, whilst there is continuous criticism of their away form (and rightly so), they have only picked up 16 points out of a possible 33 at home, the 11th best record in the league.
Opposition Style of Play
Mikel Arteta started his playing career at Barcelona, coming through at their famous La Masia academy where he first met his future co-worker and mentor, Pep Guardiola, who was 11 years his senior.
In 2012, Barcelona played Chelsea in the Semi-Finals of the Champions League, Guardiola spoke to Arteta, seeking tactical advice on how to beat them. Arteta was still a player at the time and the 2 remained in contact since and there was always a feeling the 2 would work together when Guardiola eventually managed in England and the 2 teamed up at Manchester City in 2016, turning down approaches from Arsenal who wanted him to be the head of their academy and from Mauricio Pochettino, who wanted him on his staff at Tottenham Hotspur.
Before a game against Arsenal, Guardiola put Arteta in charge of picking the team and how the team was going to play. As he knew what to expect from another mentor of his, Arsene Wenger. They won the game 2-1.
In Arteta’s short coaching career there have been similarities to Guardiola, he appears to have adopted the ideas of positional play, using the ball to create space and finding numerical superiority. Has had a full back on one side heading forward while the one on the opposite flank comes inside and joins the central midfielders. A slight variation has been that they have played a 4-2-3-1 formation as opposed to a 4-3-3, allowing Özil to play in his favoured position, with summer signing Pépé and Aubameyang on the wings and Alexandre Lacazette up front.
Regardless of how his playing style develops over the coming years, Arteta has demanded hard work from all of his players and those who don’t put in the hard yards will not play and will be advised to find a different club.
What is going to be interesting is the development of a first generation product of Guardiola’s philosophy, just like how Guardiola has been a product of the teachings of Johan Cruyff.
We saw Arsenal struggle initially against Leeds United in the FA Cup, a side who are well coached and where every player knows their role within the side. Which is something Sheffield United can take comfort in.
Player to Watch - Nicolas Pépé
Arsenal’s record signing has had a difficult start to life in North London following his move from Lille in the summer of 2019.
The Ivory Coast international has averaged 61 minutes per game played in the Premier League so far but put in arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt during their 2-0 home win over Manchester United on New Year’s Day, scoring the games opening goal and wreaking havoc for the Manchester United defence.
Still a rookie to the Premier League, it may be that the club is bedding him in gently, but with a hefty transfer fee on his shoulders, he will still be expected to deliver when picked which still hasn’t always been the case.
At Manchester City, Arteta was lauded for the work he did with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, instructing them where to be on the pitch and how to position themselves to be successful when getting on the end of chances as well as taking the 2 away for additional training after the main sessions had finished.
Sheffield United’s left-hand side could be in for a long afternoon with his pace, trickery and passing, however, one of Pépé’s weaknesses is his reluctance to track back and this is something that could be exploited.
I can see this being a difficult one to navigate and unfortunately I think we’ll just miss out. 2-1 home win.
David McGoldrick to Score Anytime at 7/2 (SkyBet); Over 2.5 Goals, Over 10.5 Corners and Over 35 Booking Points at 4/1 (SkyBet)
It’s a toss-up between Gabriel Martinelli or Reiss Nelson coming in for the suspended Aubameyang, Saka will come in for the injured Kolasinac whilst Tierney is still injured. Wilder has a fully fit squad to pick from and I can see him going with the same team that won against West Ham.