It was a quarter final match and a fourth straight away game challenge for Arsenal, against a team that has not been happy hunting this year. Arsenal have struggled in both meetups to move the ball with purpose and quality against the pressing, aggressive, rigid Sheffield United side that is making a name for itself this year.
This time around, was a very different occasion. In the past, Sheffield has been urged to success by a boisterous fanbase, ecstatic to wear their heart on their sleeves and scream out their pride to push their boys on late in matches. This time, Arsenal entered an empty Bramall Lane that offered a comfortable away experience in comparison.
With this to be the fourth game in eleven days and a fifth game three days on, squad management would have to take precedent despite excitement to play a cup tie. Arteta returned to his 3-4-3 formation unveiled at Southampton, but with a handful of adjustments to the lineup.
Arsenal: Martinez, Mustafi, Luiz, Tierney, Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Willock, Saka, Pepe, Lacazette
Luiz would be put straight back into the lineup after his suspension in place of Rob Holding, Kolasinac would play the left center back, Tierney would stay in the side but as the left wing back, Willock would partner Xhaka in place of Ceballos, Saka would play his fourth game of the restart but as a left winger in place of Aubameyang, and Lacazette would captain the side from the front.
The game was never destined to provide fireworks in the form of an end-to-end match. Not with Sheffield on pitch, and not with both sides matching each other’s 3-back system. From an Arsenal perspective, there were plenty of worrisome signs early. The most frightening, a set piece 9 minutes in that saw Sheffield score easily, thankfully waved off by an offside flag.
There would be a second goal from Sheffield waved off for offsides not long after that as well, as Arsenal continued their season trend of being as porous as can be from any sort of placekick. After that, the game trickled on as Arsenal fans adjusted their eyes to seeing play driven through the wings exclusively, with advanced wingbacks and little midfield presence. Willock next to Xhaka proved early to be on a better wavelength with right winger Nicolas Pepe, and the whole right side looked more cohesive.
In the 23rd minute, what usually is a moment of excitement, somehow was not. A ball played into the feet of Lacazette resulted in a clumsy tackle through the back of the Frenchman, and a penalty. It wasn’t a hard tackle or a last ditch play, it just sort of happened. It was a foul that no one would argue with if it happened 50 yards away from the box, but since it was clearly inside, penalty. Pepe would step up and dispatch it with ease, freezing the keeper.
Late in the game, set piece struggles would catch up with the Gunners as Sheffield finally would get their goal. In the 87th minute, a long throw into the center of the box would land right on the volleying foot of Sead Kolasinac, who would put it straight into the back of Holding to be tucked away from point blank rage by McGoldrick. 1-1, 87th minute. Here we go.
With all the worry in the world that Arsenal would manage to spoil their game late once more, the Gunners would get a final opportunity. As the ball was cleared from danger out to Saka, Saka collected and turned up field, evading a tackle. Progressing the ball with pace, he would find the run to his left of substitute Eddie Nketiah. Four touches later, Nketiah would split defenders with a cross-field ball to the feel of Nicolas Pepe. With Pepe 1-on-1, you rated his chances to make something happen, but stout defending would poke the ball away from him right into the path of a late-arriving Dani Ceballos. A quick dip of the shoulder to get to the endline, all Ceballos had to do was slot it home. 1-2 Arsenal in stoppage time.
The late drama was it for Sheffield as Arsenal advanced to the semi-finals. In an interesting game, here are 3 points of intrigue from it:
Pepe easing in
It’s never easy when a player is brought into a side and hounded at every turn by the label of “record signing.” It’s even more difficult when they are 24, entering a side that will demand they play different from how they succeeded in the past, and they are only capable of speaking to a few people while they learn a new language. Add in a tumultuous season, swapping of coaches, three different styles, and you’ve got yourself the story of Nicolas Pepe’s season.
It hasn’t been easy going for Arsenal’s Ivorian, but with his penalty kick on Sunday, Pepe contributed to his 16th goal of the season (8G, 8A) in 35 appearances giving him almost a contribution every other game and the second highest contribution tally in the side. For a player that struggled early on to get routine time, is forced wider than he is comfortable, and often not given an overlapping fullback or playmaking attacking midfielder to combine with – it’s an impressive mark.
After the game, Arteta spoke a bit about him saying, “I’m very excited about what he can bring (in the future) and what he’s bringing to the team this season. I think he’s made a click and I think he realises what he needs to do for the team when we don’t have the ball. I’m so pleased today, you’ve seen his defensive actions were incredible with what he’s doing, and then with the ball he gives us that creativity and flair that we need and big teams need. He’s always unpredictable with what can happen when he’s got the ball at his feet, so I think he’s [heading] in the right direction.”
It’s that off the ball work and involvement that may be making a difference. Often times, Pepe finds himself taken out of a game through inactivity. Arsenal aren’t in possession, when they are, it’s down the left channel and Pepe becomes a bit of a spectator on the right wing. On Sunday, Pepe was involved on both sides of the ball and that involvement allowed him to click into focus and be a danger through his runs, whipped in balls, and defensive work.
He ended the game with a goal, 3 shots, a created chance, 5 crosses, 1 key pass, 2 fouls won, a tackle, an aerial win, an interception, and 6 recoveries. It’s the statline of a player looking to make a difference up and down the wing and something that Arsenal would be very happy to get consistently out of him.
If Pepe has “clicked” and these are the performances Arsenal are going to get from him, the Arsenal wings of Aubameyang and Pepe will be dangerous for the rest of the year.
Tierney asserts his quality
We have written recently about the quality that Kieran Tierney has brought since his return, the fire he brings to the side, and what he can offer a struggling backline, but now we can add to that list consistency.
In a close race with Pepe, Tierney offered up another potential Man of the Match performance and clean sheet-win for Arsenal. He was a little more errant with his passes only completing 66% of his passes, but he was also a bit more daring with the ball. He had the most passes in the opposition’s half (24), 5 crosses, 2 interceptions, 5 gained possessions, 1 key pass, won 3 duels, 2 aerials won, and was exemplary in how a player channels their fire and passion positively.
Less than a month ago, there were a fair few Arsenal fans questioning who the future left back should be after the blossoming Bukayo Saka staked a claim from himself. Many, myself included, were ecstatic at the prospect of having both Saka and Tierney in the side after seeing the offensive presence Saka offers. Within a few matches, the many doubters narratives around Tierney have shifted. No longer is the call a whine at Arsenal splashing £25m on a player that is “always hurt”. Not the call is to fast track Tierney to captain the side.
The consistency in his play, the fire he brings, the example he sets. Kieran Tierney is here and here to stay.
Lacking in attack
Sports are often a “game of inches”. Football is no different, and it is within these inches that the narrative surrounding a match changes. Sunday’s quarter final was a prime example. Arsenal went into the half with 66% possession and only 5 shots with 2 on goal. Not exactly efficient usage of their possession. But being up by a goal allowed everyone to breathe a little more freely.
Sheffield has two early goals called back for close offsides calls. They were offsides, they were the right calls, but inches away from making this a long frustrating day. A late goal to draw level posed the threat of 30 extra minutes, something Arsenal’s legs hardly need at this point and could have seen a Sheffield side full of confidence seal the win on another physical set piece as Arsenal’s endurance waned.
All this to say that since Arsenal made the switch to a 3-4-3, they have relied on being efficient with their shots and getting on the board. With only 10 total shots yesterday, a 1.42xG (including the penalty), and a lot of the ball, it is clear to see that Arsenal have put a real emphasis on protecting their own goal. Currently, the chances they are creating a good, but they are few and far between for a side with nearly 60%.
Finding that balance has been extremely difficult for Arsenal this year and it points to a side that is missing pieces to their puzzle, especially in the midfield when it comes to creating chances. Often times, it felt like Arsenal reached the final third and waited for someone to do something special. Often times, that comes in the form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but yesterday it felt like we waited for Saka or Pepe to show us something. Striking a balance remains the next step for Arsenal and Arteta because these runs of individual brilliance eventually dry up and, in a flash, the narrative changes.
A win is a win, it’s not always pretty, but when your side faces 4 away games in this short of a span, sometimes that’s all you can ask. The FA Cup has a lot to offer Arsenal, but the road to the finals is thick with competition. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal makes for a good lineup for unbiased fans, but a date in the semi-finals with a Manchester City side looking to click into gear before the Champions League lingers dauntingly. A big task for Arteta and Arsenal, hopefully they can have a match go more according to plan than their last time out just 11 days ago.