Football Features

Pepe steps up and Ozil’s absence explained: Five things learned from Sheff Utd 1-2 Arsenal

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 15:31, 28 June 2020

Arsenal reached a record-equalling 30th FA Cup semi-final after running out 2-1 winners against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

Mikel Arteta’s men were seemingly cruising to a 1-0 win after Nicolas Pépé put them ahead from the spot early on, but as ever with the Gunners there was late drama.

The Blades, who last reached the final four in 2014, were their usual spirited self and forced a late equaliser through David McGoldrick. But the goals didn’t stop there, as substitute Dani Ceballos snuck his shot past Dean Henderson after 90 minutes.

As the dust settles, here are five things we learned from this pulsating encounter.

1. Pépé steps up

Being your club’s record signing comes with it’s own pressures especially if that side is hellbent in rekindling former glories. It’s now 16 years since Arsenal last held the Premier League title aloft (a season in which they didn’t taste a single defeat). Chances of ending that drought anytime soon feels remote, but as we’ve seen down the years fortunes can change with the wind. Nicolas Pépé, who’s enjoying a up and down first season in Arsenal’s colours, would no doubt be hard on himself with so much being expected.

Going into today’s game, he had managed seven goals in 31 appearances, none of which came in the FA Cup. That changed, after Chris Basham brought Alexandre Lacazette down inside the penalty area. His converted effort, a well-placed shot which gave Dean Henderson no chance, means he maintained his 100% record from the spot for Arsenal. Now having been involved in 16 goals, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (21) has been more productive for the Gunners this season in that respect. Interestingly, this was also the first time in the 2019/20 competition that Sheffield United had gone behind.

2. Number 14 on the horizon?

This season’s FA Cup represents Arsenal’s sole opportunity for silverware. The Gunners will undoubtedly back themselves in going all the way given their status as cup specialists, having won three of their last six editions. But the superstitious few among their support would see this Bramall Lane triumph as nothing more than Mikel Arteta’s men placing one hand on the prize.

And that’s because, according to Opta, the North London outfit have gone on to win English football’s premier cup competition in three of the previous six campaigns (1935/36, 2002/03 and 2004/05) where they’ve knocked out the Yorkshire-based club. Of course, they’ve failed to do so three other times, and given the erratic nature of this current incarnation you couldn’t fully back them winning their 14th crown.

But, maybe, this victory which saw them display a never-say-die attitude could be a turning point. Dani Ceballos, who hasn’t exactly set the Emirates alight on loan from Real Madrid, registered the injury-time winner, a fillip for the powers that be as both of their big summer recruits under Unai Emery netted in this key game. Who knows what this could do for his confidence and those around him as well. It’s worth remembering a few days ago they were on the other end of a dramatic 2-1 result.

3. Lundstram’s day to forget

Bramall Lane has been a tough place to go for Arsenal down the years. Heading into this showdown, they’d manage just one win across eight previous visits in all competitions. Earlier this season, under former boss Emery, they fell to a 1-0 defeat courtesy of Lys Mousset and Arteta must have been thinking ‘here we go again’ when fantasy football cult hero John Lundstram headed the hosts ahead just before the 10th-minute mark.

But it was duly ruled out for offside by the video assistant referee, much to Chris Wilder’s frustration. If his ‘number seven’, who is fighting to retain a regular starting berth, thought his day couldn’t get any worse, an innocuous coming together with Joe Willock resulted in an unfortunate shoulder injury that saw his contribution for the day come to an end ten minutes from half-time.

4. Tide has turned

Before all football was temporarily halted due to coronavirus there were murmurings of Sheffield United securing an unlikely Champions League place for next season. If anything this illustrates what a chaotic season it’s been in England’s top division outside Liverpool, who have been near perfect. Then again, even that could have not been predicted. Wilder’s industrious charges are nothing short of a breath of fresh air, much like Wolves the previous campaign, but what made them so good has started to deteriorate.

There are unquestionably mitigating circumstances. A squad of their size would struggle with more than two key personnel absent, which has been the case since the restart.

But defence, and how it operated, was their biggest weapon, and United have now conceded eight goals across their last three outings in all competitions. The previous 11 games saw them ship just six. It’s a concern that needs addressing if they want to avoid this good campaign from ending in a damp squib.

5. A recurring problem

For longtime Arsenal supporters there must have been a collective sense of déjà vu when Sheffield United forced home the equaliser. An effort from a side wearing red and white stripes that came about following a throw-in. David McGoldrick’s goal surely meant an extra 30 minutes, the last thing Arteta needed following another game that saw him lose a player to injury. Fortunately, Ceballos saved the day.

However, the Spanish tactician has other things to worry about. David Luiz, back in the side after serving a suspension, limped off in the second half to join Bernd Leno, Pablo Marí, Calum Chambers, Cédric Soares and Lucas Torreira in the physio room.

Mesut Özil, too. The playmaker, who’s been a hot topic this season, missed today’s game due to his recurring back injury. It is a problem that has dogged him across the last three seasons, even drawing unconventional theories from academics. Ingo Frobose, Professor for Prevention and Rehabilitation in Sport at the German Sports University of Cologne, previously told German newspaper Bild playing the video game Fortnite five hours a day could be the the cause of Ozil’s back troubles.

It remains to be seen whether this latest episode has anything to do with one of his favourite extracurricular activities, but it could be a while till we seem him doing what he does best again. According to ESPN, Ozil is willing to run down his contract despite Arsenal’s efforts to sell him in the summer. Unless either party blinks, Ozil could spend the foreseeable future on the sidelines.