It’s a big day for what I imagine will be a heavily rotated squad. The decision comes down to preservation of legs more than dictating how highly Arsenal value to the competition. It is already the 4th game of Arsenal’s Project Restart, their 4th away game, and it will demand a bit of savvy management to select a strong enough technical squad that can handle the press and organization of Sheffield and get the job done.
Earlier in the week, Arteta looked ahead to this fixture with Sheffield, where he talked about the excitement to still be in the mix for a piece of silverware, but acknowledged there was a need for fresh legs.
Before Project Restart’s games began, I wrote about how important this FA Cup could be to Arsenal’s season and questioned whether it was being undervalued by Gunner fans. It offers a piece of silverware, a symbolic hurdle cleared for a young Mikel Arteta, a sign that Arteta is moving the club in the right direction, and access to Europe and some extra funds. All things that Arsenal can hardly afford to turn their nose up at as they sit in 9th place in the league and qualifying in that capacity will take a lot of help from opposition.
Before Arsenal can begin to dream about writing their names once again in the annals of FA Cup history, they will have to navigate through a tricky Sheffield United side that has yet to lose to Arsenal. Their last round ended in a 1-1 draw where Arsenal did not have star striker Aubameyang on the field. The previous match he saw red for a poorly timed tackle and was suspended.
Sheffield plays in an intriguing 3-5-2 formation and have built up a well-earned reputation for being an organized, diligent, and hard-nosed side. They will look to compress the game into three quarters of the pitch with a high press and force Arsenal into areas of the field they can be pressured and trapped in. In moments where the high press isn’t on, they are comfortable in having their wingbacks drop into the backline and forming a 5-3-2 to deal with the danger.
There are few times they will find themselves outnumbered without the ball, but that comes with a price. Often, their attack is dependent on quick counters or moments of brilliance from individual players to put points on the board. There is little chance this game turns into a shoot out or an open end-to-end match. Keeping everything contained and in front of them while looking for their moment to pounce and create a mistake is the name of their game.
Arsenal response to pressing
Last game we saw Arsenal play another team that looks to press high and force mistakes. Granted the Southampton side has been less successful at it, it’s good practice for today’s cup match.
We saw Arsenal adopt a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 formation with an emphasis of keeping the ball out of the center of the park and in the channels. This denied Southampton the ability to force turnovers in dangerous areas while keeping the ball at the feet of Arsenal’s danger-men.
With Sheffield’s emphasis on deploying a similar press, Arsenal could very likely adopt a similar formation with a heavily rotated feel to it all. Playing down the channels, no-nonsense at the back, and looking to offer themselves options when their outside backs are on the ball. Sheffield look to pressure outside backs and jump on poor access balls into center midfielders feet to initiate the counter. By offering backs the easy progressive options of wingbacks, center mids, or skipping the lines, it will make traps difficult to set.
With Sheffield in their own 3 back system with wingers, it offers Arsenal forwards the opportunity to find themselves 1-on-1 with the backline or slip in between the United wingbacks and central defenders to find space. Arteta and Arsenal will be confident their winders like Nelson, Pepe, Saka, Aubameyang, or even Willock are capable of beating them for pace.
Big day for the Gunners and an opportunity to reach a semi final. See you after the game!