In the grand scheme of things the result tonight probably doesn’t really matter too much against Sheffield United. Of course we want to win, but winning will neither cement a position in a part of the league we want to be at, nor will it enable us to climb the league to any significant amount. A win takes us to ninth after Leeds’ shock win at Man City yesterday lunchtime. A defeat probably means we stay in 11th. So from a numbers perspective it’s not really worth deliberating over too much. We know the league season has been a total dud and we also know that the European campaign stands on a knife-edge after our lackluster performance last Thursday.
But what a win IS important for tonight – at this dreaded and gawd awful time of Sunday night at 7pm – is for morale, motivation, belief and trying to re-establish momentum. So what we need to see tonight is a performance in which the team has a point to prove.
We play the worst team in the league. Sheffield United have won four games and drawn two games, losing 24 in total, scoring just 17 goals all season. That’s less than one a game scored. That is where their trouble has been and remained all season and it is why they will get relegated come May. But that doesn’t mean that this Arsenal team can’t gift aid them some points. We all know we are perfectly capable of that. Sheffield United have only scored more than one goal in the Premier League three games all season – twice against United (one of which they lost) and once against the team second from bottom, West Brom – so they aren’t high scorers. Which means statistically you’d expect that if Arsenal score at least two we should go on to win the game.
But lately we’ve seen our penchant for missing gilt-edged changes. Olympiakos and Slavia Prague were two cases in point. So at the sharp end of the pitch today we really have to see a massive improvement in this team. The only trouble we have is that Odegaard and Smith-Rowe are looking likely as though they’ll be out for tonight. The official site says they are ‘being assessed’ but for me that in itself risks far too much of a risk ahead of Thursday’s season defining game. We should be looking to give them the rest and save them for Thursday and whilst I want us to win tonight, with Tierney breaking down after playing so much international football last weekend, as well as Partey being rushed back for the Scum game at the Toilet Bowl earlier in the season, we all know how this plays out if they start.
What it does do, however, is leave Arteta with a real conundrum on his hands, because when we were at the absolute nadir in our season, we didn’t have either of those players acting as the ‘connectors’. It left big gaps and deficiencies in the team and resulted in an Arsenal team unable to create chances and unable to bring the forward line in to play enough. So even though I want Arteta to rest both players tonight, I also want him to find a connector elsewhere in the squad somehow.
Could it be Dani Ceballos? He’s been woeful of late and cost us sloppy games, but if he is given instructions to press higher up the pitch, if we slot Partey and Xhaka in behind and tell him to stop dropping deeper and try to play the role of connector, then at least it might allow his free movement and running to give us an option. We’ve tried Willian in there and it wa sutterly horrendous. We’ve tried Lacazette in there and it didn’t even pretend to look like it was working. Perhaps there’s a role for an Azeez but we haven’t seen him at all so I doubt that will happen. Perhaps Arteta will try something totally left field and play Saka right, Martinelli left, Auba through the middle and Pepe with a free role behind? Pepe has shown he has the eye for a pass – just look at his great ball to Lacazette for the penalty in the NLD – but he hasn’t played there at all this season and I’d be surprised if Arteta tried it now.
He could though. If forced in to a decision I would say it is worth a go in a game against the team bottom of the league. It may just pay off and if we get the win tonight it will at least inject a bit of confidence in to a team who looked a little devoid of it on Thursday and in the Liverpool game. We were far too passive when in possession and I think if I want to see anything from tonight, it is the removal of that passivity. Quicker movement of the ball, greater movement of players into space, less touches on the ball (Ceballos). That’s what we all want to see. Then end product to finish it off.
Sheffield UNited will not be easy. They are fighting for their lives and they will go for every ball. They will fight to the death and will chase and harry us all night, espeically in defence because they will have done their homework and seen how bad our game management has been of late. They know our defence has a mistake in it so I expect a high press from them to try to turn the ball over. Which means I hope we don’t go back to that weird tactic against Slavia where we went long. If we are going to play out from the back then do it, but give options in the team to receive the ball from the defenders. That’s where the midfield duo of Partey and Xhaka need to be better and my hope is that they both have a vastly improved performance from Thursday. We need them to. If we can avoid a Sheffield United press and then find pockets of space behind it, then we should get chances against the team with the joint worst defence in the league (along with Crystal Palace, who got one of their few clean sheets at the Emirates this season. Arsenal, the gift of giving to opponents…).
I am expecting a reaction from these Arsenal players. We simply must see that tonight. No excuses.
Catch you all tomorrow.