Finally, match day is upon us, having had to wait what feels like an eternity for The Arsenal to arrive after a particularly draggy international break. It’s a trip up to Sheffield United and for those of you with memories long enough, that 2006 defeat at Bramall Lane will probably feel a little fresher than we want.
How was it 13 years ago that Kolo Toure was turned so easily for their goal? How was it that long ago that Phil-effin-Jagielka took gloves from Paddy Kenny and we still couldn’t find an equaliser?
More importantly, how is it that we haven’t beaten Sheffield United in their last four league games against us! I mean, this is in no means meant as disrespect to the Blades, but when we would have been playing them in the league last we’d have had one of the best teams in the country. I know that’s not the case now but I wouldn’t have expected us to have such a poor record. It’s three draws and a defeat in our last four and tonight Unai Emery needs to find a way to outthink Chris Wilder and his unorthodox playing style.
These overlapping centre halves that Sheffield United play is something that hasn’t been seen before in the Premier League and I think it’s caught one or two teams out. But for teams who can exposure on the counter it represents real opportunity. Michael Cox has put something on the Arsenal website about how Jamie Vardy exposed Sheffield United’s defence by running into those spaces left behind by the marauding central defenders and so my hope is that Unai Emery has a plan for that too tonight. Whether that is Saka, Laca or Pepe starting I don’t know, but whoever plays in those wide forward positions this evening needs to have an impact. Personally I’d also like to see a player who can find gaps in the half spaces in between the defence and midfield of Sheffield United, so we can take advantage of when the Blades push forward, but it’s difficult to guess how Emery will line up tonight.
We know that Leno will be in between the sticks and I suspect it’ll continue to be Sokratis and Luiz. There have been questions as to whether Holding comes in but I suspect it’ll remain the two more experienced players. There was a clean sheet to be had against Bournemouth and so perhaps Emery will want to build on that. The full backs – assuming he’s playing a back four that is – will most likely be Chambers and Tierney I reckon. Chambers is in form and Tierney has looked good. Kolasinac is available but I just have a hunch it’s time for Tierney tonight.
Then we have the real head scratcher in terms of who plays, because the options are numerous. Personally I’d like to see a base of Torreira and Xhaka tonight. I think if we want to hit our forward players early and find them in space from Sheffield United’s centre backs pushing forward, then somebody who is accurate in his longer ball transition will be worthwhile. The other option of course is that you go back to front in transition by keeping the ball on the deck. In that instance you probably want Guendouzi next to Torreira with Ceballos in front of them. That would give us an intensity and drive when on the ball and at our feet.
Özil could be an option but I doubt he will play from the start tonight. Emery May have talked up his improved training efforts over the last week or so, but that won’t grant the German a fast pass to the first team I don’t think. Perhaps he – like Lacazette – are options from the bench today. We won’t have long to wait to find out.
If Özil were to play you’d assume it’d be in the middle of a three behind Aubameyang, either side of Saka and Pepe and it’s the Ivorian who I’ll be interested to have a look at today. He scored when on international duty and hopefully that’ll give him a bit of confidence ahead of a return to the Premier League. Some people have said that he hasn’t performed since joining but I don’t buy that. I’ve seen some pretty decent games from him and just because he doesn’t have the goal or assist stats for people to salivate over, doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done well for us, or might do well tonight.
In fact, if he does find space in behind Sheffield United’s wing backs and centre halves, we may see a good game from our record signing.
Sheffield United will look to use the width of the pitch and so that’s where our full backs will be important tonight, because they like to get the ball out wide and get it into the box. We should expect a busy evening for whoever plays left and right back but if we can pin them back through aggressive and dominating possession of the football, you’d expect we should have enough to win this game.
This is not an easy match. We’ve made a meal of all of our games this season and I’m expecting nothing less tonight. But it’s all about the three points so if we can pick them up tonight then that’s all that matters.
Let’s grind out that result tonight, Arsenal.