Sheffield United have fight but no favours: The big talking points from Blades defeat to Arsenal
It was instructive, as Sheffield United began finalising their preparations for this fixture, to hear Aaron Ramsdale discuss the personality and describe the character traits of Chris Wilder’s squad.
“Everyone’s a fighter, we’re all ready for a scrap and the lads have worked hard to get here,” the England under-21 international said, before packing his overnight bag and travelling to London with the rest of his team mates. “Nobody, I mean nobody, has ever been given anything. What we’ve got from our careers so far, we’ve all had to earn.”
After losing their opening three matches of the new Premier League season, United entered this latest assignment concussed and on the ropes. But as any boxer will tell you, styles are what make scraps.
So it was no surprise, when they squared-up to opponents who regard themselves as footballing purists, to hear Wilder’s players talk about dragging Arsenal into the trenches and testing the strength of their chins.
They did but, with new record signing Rhian Brewster unavailable for selection following his transfer from Liverpool, not until David McGoldrick was on target in the 83rd minute. And Arsenal, who benefited from a huge slice of good fortune when David Luiz escaped what should have been a certain red card for a foul on Oliver Burke, had already netted twice by then.
“We got a foothold in the game, which is exactly what we wanted, but then got undone in five or six minutes,” Wilder said, after watching strikes from Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe leave United still searching for their first win of the new season.
“We showed good spirit and desire from there on in, albeit after initially feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves, but got back in it. It might have been a little smash and grab if we had but plenty of results happen like that.”
NO FAVOURS GIVEN BY EITHER MANAGER
Long before Saka and Pepe landed two quickfire blows, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta had delivered a message of his own by refusing to make any mention of either United or Wilder in his programme notes.
Showering the visitors with praise, and paying tribute to their opposite number, is usually customary for the home manager. There is no animosity between the Basque and Wilder. Nor any simmering resentment between the two clubs. But Arteta’s decision to blank United, whether deliberate or not, confirmed Arsenal were also ready to roll-up their sleeves in pursuit of the win which would lift them into the Champions League places. Ramsdale and his colleagues were clearly not the only ones in a steely frame of mind.
“We had to play the game that Sheffield United allow you to play,” Arteta said, describing Arsenal as “mentally drained”. “There are so many different styles in this competition, so many different ways of defending. But my players showed good energy levels and, how do you say, dug in when they had to do.”
“I know they are on the right path. They have 100 percent commitment.”
BUT A HUGE ONE GRANTED TO THE GUNNERS BY THE REFEREE
Fortunately for Luiz, and unfortunately for United, referee Lee Mason was clearly in a much more forgiving mood at the beginning of the contest. The intensity of United’s pressing, designed to suffocate Arsenal’s creativity, was already in evidence when, with less than five minutes on the clock, Burke robbed Luiz of possession as the Brazilian dawdled on the ball a fraction too long.
The United centre-forward was bearing down on Bernd Leno, and clean through on goal, when Luiz’s tug on his jersey provided the German enough time to dart out and clear. Arsenal should have been down to 10 men. But Mason thought differently, immediately signalling for the action to continue. At the back of the West Stand, where Wilder’s video analysts quickly reviewed the incident, the howls of protest quickly turned to derision when the extent of Luiz’s luck became apparent.
“Everyone saw it,” Wilder said. “I saw it, my assistant saw it, my coach saw it and my substitutes all saw it. The only people who didn’t see it, apparently, were the five (officials).”
“I don’t want to be telling my players to do that,” Wilder continued, when asked if Burke should have taken a tumble to highlight the foul. “They are honest players and we shouldn’t be thinking about doing that. Maybe others in the division might, but mine don’t do that.”
DISCIPLINED BLADES WERE INITIALLY DIFFICULT TO CUT OPEN
Although Luiz continued to remain an accident waiting to happen, Arsenal had the potential to be much more fluent at the other end of the pitch where Arteta, despite electing to name Alexandre Lacazette on the bench, still enjoyed the luxury of deploying Willian and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang alongside youngster Eddie Nketiah.
United could have taken Lacazette’s omission as an insult - the Frenchman had started all of Arsenal’s previous three league outings. If they did, they channelled their anger into a tactically disciplined display which meant Arsenal had to wait until the 28th minute before carving an opening.
Nketiah’s effort was the longest wait for a shot in an English top-flight contest since December. In a strange sort of way, United will also have taken encouragement from the fact that Arsenal’s best attempt of the first-half - Ramsdale turning Aubameyang’s long-range strike over with his fingertips - came when a poor clearance by the England under-21 international present Dani Ceballos with the ball.
However, having now lost seven in a row if last season’s games are also taken into account, their overall form remains a concern.
“It’s not seven, it’s four games,” Wilder said. “We’ve played four times this season and this season is all that I’m bothered about.
“Possession-wise, we’re not playing with the same confidence and freedom we have done in the past but perhaps that’s understandable. It has to come back though, and we have to show resilience because this is Premier League football.”
THE OTHER MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Inevitably, given the energy they had invested before the interval, the intensity of United’s pressing waned a little after the break.
The partnership between Ceballos and Aubameyang caused a problem again at the beginning of the second period, but the Gabonese failed to connect with the low centre his team mate whipped across Ramsdale’s penalty area.
Having noted the trouble Burke had caused Luiz early on by constantly hunting down the former Chelsea defender, Wilder introduced Oli McBurnie in order to continue probing this particular line of enquiry. It could have been a masterstroke, had Arsenal not netted twice in the space of three minutes just past the hour.
Arteta applauded the intricacy of the interchange which broke the deadlock - Aubameyang producing a delightful touch before Hector Bellerin found Saka at the far post - but Wilder, who watched Pepe beat Ramsdale with a perfectly placed finish soon after - will have been disappointed that the Arsenal teenager was afforded so much space before heading home in the 62nd minute.
McGoldrick engineered his own nearly 20 minutes later, curling a shot past Leno to score United’s first league goal of the season and set-up a nervous finish after George Baldock had powered forward and then continued his run to leave Arsenal’s defence in two minds.