After seeing what unfolded yesterday in most of the other games, there’s something very satisfying about a relatively ‘normal’ victory over a disciplined Sheffield United side, like we got at home yesterday lunchtime. United were a travesty and Liverpool just forgot who they were, whereas Leicester also had an off day against West Ham so apart from the scummers round the corner winning as a result of the United match, it was a pretty good day, all-in-all.
It did feel like it would be a tough one for us though; Sheffield United may not have scored so far this season (of course we would be the first to oblige them, although to be fair it was a good finish) but what they are good at, is frustrating their opponents and keeping compact and tight in their formation and position. It’s no surprise though; they’ve played this way for the last four years or so and last season they did the same approach which we found tough to break down. But last year we didn’t break down and this year we found a way, so we have to look at the fact that we did manage to unpick a stubborn defence as a positive and there were some well worked goals in that too.
But after the first 45 I did wonder if we were going to get there. Arteta named a slightly shuffled team and perhaps the oddest omission from the lot was Granit Xhaka in midfield. Elneny and Ceballos were preferred, with Saka operating in a kind of ‘left eight’ position which morphed into wing back or left wing depending on whether we were in possession, out of possession, or whether the ball was on that left side that we favour so much.
It felt like it was four at the back on paper but ass is the norm with an Arteta side, it changes, because for large chunks of that first half we saw Elneny drift to the right to operate as almost a kind of right back. Think Xhaka when Arteta first arrived; he would drift to the left which would allow Saka to get forward more. Yesterday was Elneny which gave Bellerin licence to go forward more and although we didn’t really see the fruits of that labour in the first half, we certainly did in the second.
There wasn’t really much going on in that first half though. Sky Sports loved to play the ‘plucky smaller team is harshly done by’ card at halftime, which is laughable given that the severity of Sander Berge’s challenge on Auba could have taken him out of the game, yet this was glossed over by the pundits. Obviously. Doesn’t fit the narrative you see. The challenge looked similar to the Auba challenge that saw him sent off against Palace, as well as the Eddie challenge that saw him off at the Emirates against Leicester last season. But of course nobody seemed to talk too much about that. Utter joke. What’s more of a joke was the very weird response from Chris Wilder afterwards, who seemed to suggest that he’d received a call about JOhn Egan being sent off for a shirt pull in their game against Villa, telling him that it shouldn’t have been a sending off. But then, almost in the same breath, he suggests that a shirt pull is a shirt pull and Luiz should have been sent off. So which is it Chris? Because either you think shirt pulls like that are a sending off – in which case you should acknowledge Egan was right to go – or both cases are similar and therefore you don’t think either Egan or Luiz should be sent off? You weirdo.
Anyway, it didn’t happen, people got irate and we move on to the second half, in which after the first ten minutes of pretty much the same, Arteta made a change and it was a welcome one. Pepe came on and he certainly looked like he had a point to prove. I like that Arteta could diagnose the problem early on and change it early in the second half. He made the call to take Nketiah off, moved Auba central, with Pepe and Willian either side. It was a good move because we seemed to click into gear and Pepe was lively throughout. But here’s the thing: he was lively because he had an Arsenal player in close proximity to him to do the things he’s good at. For the first goal he was moving his body, shifting his balance well, causing Sheffield United problems, but it was the run of Elneny and Bellerin’s cross that made it for Saka. Bellerin’s positioning was an example of the value of Pepe when he has his full back in that position but i’ll come back to those two in a minute because right now we need to do a little appreciation of the precocious talent we have in Bukayo Saka.
I thought he was very good yesterday. He pops up on the left but he was in half spaces and looked good throughout. It is weird to think he’s still a teenager because he plays like a guy in his mid to late 20s. The clipped ball from Bellerin to the back post still had a few people on them and whilst Saka isn’t known for his heading ability, he finished that we consummate ease, to put us one up.
And thereafter we seemed to relax a bit. We had controlled possession for most of the game but we moved it quicker. in the second half. In the first half it was laboured, slow, players wanting an extra touch and it played into Sheffield United’s hands. But in the second half there seemed to be more purpose and we looked more comfortable after Pepe came on.
And I must say I was so pleased to see him bag his goal and the manner it came about. He picks up the ball on our right hand side and what he wants to do – what he’s always wanted to do – was a short ‘give and go’ with somebody. That somebody was Hector Bellerin, who because of Elneny covering was given more licence to get forward – who found him with the clever ball and Pepe gets in behind his man with his pace and is bearing down on the defender before a very cool finish off the post. I love a goal off the post and this was no exception. This is what you pay £72million for and this is what we’re all expecting and wanting more of from the Ivorian. But he needs players to operate near him, or spotting his runs. Bellerin taking up more advanced positions meant he had that and so it is no surprise he bagged his first goal of the season. We all know how reliant we have been on that left hand side, but with Auba operating centrally, the need for us to switch it up a bit gave Bellerin the opportunity to play further up the field and he was heavily involved in both goals. It shows we have an option on that side and I hope we see more of a mixture of both left and right in terms of how we attack in future.
I also hope we give game time to Gabriel, who I thought was excellent yesterday, mainly because he made things look like so much less of a fuss. He is a strong player and can nudge off attackers. He wins his aerial duels. He is good with the ball at his feet although his passes did get caught up in the wet grass at times in the first half. He is going to be a big player for us and I for one am very excited to see just how much he can grow as an important player for us in the coming games.
I’m also hopeful that we can see more of what we saw yesterday in terms of the way the team set up. Let’s have more shifting of impetus from left to right, then from right to left, in terms of which parts of the pitch we overload. It will make us less predictable and stretch teams more, opening up spaces and giving our attacking players more opportunities to find shooting chances, which is what we all want quite desperately.
So all in all a good day at the office for Arteta and his team. Attention focuses to today’s closing of the transfer window but if I’m completely honest with you, my expectations are not too high, because after the Aouar deal hasn’t come off, I can’t see Partey arriving at London Colney if I’m honest. Perhaps the club has a ‘Plan B’ that they’ve set their sights on, but it doesn’t look too promising just yet. If we get nobody in then it has been a shocking window in terms of not fixing a big, big problem in our team that is there for everyone to see. But let’s not judge until we see what unfolds today.
Catch you all tomorrow with some closed transfer window thoughts.