Football Features

“A sneak preview of Artetaball’s final form” – Five things learned as Arsenal see off Sheffield United

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:24, 4 October 2020 | Updated: 9:47, 30 March 2021

In an interesting afternoon of football, Arsenal beat Sheffield United 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners bossed the game from start to finish and survived a late rally from the Blades to get back to winning ways. What did we learn?

1. The wing wonders take flight

Much has been made of the brand of football Mikel Arteta has had Arsenal play since taking over, and whilst he has shown an admirable degree of pragmatism to help the Gunners pick up huge wins against big sides and lift the FA Cup and Community Shield, everyone knows how he wants his side to play. Under Arteta, Arsenal are supposed to play slick passing football like Manchester City.

However one problem Arsenal have is that for that system to work, you need wingers. They are essential to the system because they give the team attacking structure. They stretch defences out wide and, when they get the ball their 1v1 ability breaks down defensive structures and their runs off the ball provide key passing options in the final third.

Yet for the most part under Arteta, Arsenal have not had wingers. Sure there have been wingers at the club, but the only one of them to perform consistently has been teenaged Bukayo Saka and he’s often been needed at wing-back. This has meant that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been played wide, to offer some threat out there, which has worked for the Gunners to a degree but has led to interminable debates over his best position.

Well, today we saw the final form of what Mikel Arteta is building at Arsenal. Their Plan A coming together. Aubameyang central, flanked by two wingers. Bukayo Saka and Willian got the start and whilst the veteran Brazilian was quiet, Saka was lively and opened the scoring with a lovely header at the back-post, capping a flowing Arsenal attack that saw Aubameyang’s link play come into focus during the build-up.

Then Nicolas Pépé, Arsenal’s record signing who has to this point been frustratingly inconsistent from moment to moment, seriously sometimes it looks like even he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the ball, today he showed the sheer potential he has by picking the ball up, driving at the heart of the Sheffield United defence and sliding a beautiful shot into the far corner of the net.

Two goals from their two wingers and a far more structurally impressive display from Arsenal. Obviously the club’s no. 9’s (Eddie Nketiah and Alexandre Lacazette) still have roles to play in the squad, but this was a sneak preview of Artetaball’s final form. Aubameyang up-top with the wing wonders flying alongside him. From what we’ve seen so far it could be very beautiful indeed.

2. No more surprise factor

Sheffield United were a sensation in the Premier League last season. A squad full of unknowns coached by a decidedly unfashionable pair of coaches. It didn’t look like much was going to happen for the Blades, yet thanks to Chris Wilder and Alan Knill’s system of play, they were incredibly consistent from start to finish.

Well, almost finish. They lost the last three games of the season to tumble down the table, finishing just ninth when at one point they looked certain to finish in the Europa League places. That poor form has carried over to the start of this season where, sans the surprise factor they had last season, the overall lack of quality in their squad has come to the fore.

The Blades have lost their first four games of the season, and they didn’t even score until today’s defeat at the Emirates. You’d expect their form to pick-up but despite all their time in the wilderness they’ve not lost seven league games in a row since the middle of the 1970’s.

Chris Wilder has some serious work to do because it looks like they’re in trouble.

3. VAR is a strange, strange thing

VAR is constantly in the headlines for all the times it gets involved and hands out penalties, often bizarrely. Of course a lot of the defences mounted for VAR are that it can be a force for good that will improve the game overall. But here’s the thing: can we believe that to be the case when VAR is as reticent to get involved as it was today?

Twice there were screamingly obvious red card incidents that VAR neglected to correct the referee on. First there was David Luiz’s foul on Oli Burke, where he clearly tugged the striker back and prevented a clean shot at goal. Then there was Sander Berge sliding studs up right into Aubameyang’s ankle. Thankfully the striker wasn’t injured, but he very nearly could have been, and VAR declined to mete out the correct punishment (a red card) for the offensive tackle.

VAR will never be loved, or even accepted, until it starts to intervene in incidents that need intervention.

4. “The Man” McGoldrick

Sheffield United have only score two goals so far this season, one in the EFL Cup and one in the Premier League. Both of those goals were scored by David McGoldrick, a squad striker for the Blades who never got the credit that others do but at 32-years-old is showing how important he is for the Gunners. McGoldrick’s finish today was absolutely sensational and if he can stay that sharp in front of goal then it surely won’t be long before Sheffield United start picking up some points.

5. Gabriel The Titan

Arsenal haven’t had a great defender, a genuinely great defender, since Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré left the club. No matter what anyone tells you about Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, they were good not great. They worked superbly as a duo, with each complimenting the others weaknesses, but individually neither was world-class nor had the potential to get there.

It’s very early days so far, but Gabriel Magalhaes is showing signs that he could very well be a world-class centre-back in the making. Today against Sheffield United, Gabriel won an immense 6/7 aerial duels. He wasn’t intimidated by the Sheffield United aerial bombardment and that sums up how he’s been all season: unbothered. He’s missed one game so far in his debut campaign and that was the one game that Arsenal actually lost. Gabriel has it all, especially composure, command and confidence at just 22 years of age. This kid is the real deal.