Sheffield United must accelerate contract talks with John Fleck after his goal against Arsenal; Gunners feigning injury; crucial Billy Sharp and THREE more talking points from Blades draw at Emirates
The Star’s Sheffield United writer James Shield analyses some of the talking points from today’s game at Arsenal, which saw Chris Wilder’s side take a deserved point after John Fleck’s late equaliser cancelled out Gabriel Martinelli’s opener for the hosts.
Get a Move On: John Fleck was already a huge talent. Indeed, it does not reflect well on the supposedly scientific geniuses who now design scouting networks, that he was languishing in League One with Coventry City when Chris Wilder, having just taken charge of United, decided to give him a chance. But now the midfielder has added goals to his repertoire - the equaliser he scored here during the closing stages was his fifth of the season so far - he has developed into an exceptional one. With 15 matches remaining, this is already the most prolific campaign of Fleck’s senior career. Speaking before travelling to London with his squad by train, Wilder confirmed preliminary talks about a new contract for the Scot have already taken place. United would be advised to accelerate those, because his value - and his bargaining power - is growing by the week.
A Familiar and Frustrating Tactic: Mike Dean would call it ‘laying down a marker.’ A way of exerting his authority and letting the players know that poor discipline would not be tolerated. Plenty of referees like to use this weapon in their armoury. The only trouble is, as Oliver Norwood discovered to his cost, it always leaves one player walking a difficult tightrope for the majority of the game. Less than four minutes had passed when the United midfielder was cautioned for a late challenge on Alexandre Lacazette. Admittedly, it wasn’t the cleanest of tackles Norwood will make this season. But it probably warranted no more than a quick word in his ear. With the former Northern Ireland international forced to curb his competitive instincts, John Fleck and John Lundstram took up some of the slack. But it was noticeable, as they highlighted the more cerebral nature of Premier League football, that Arsenal immediately began to probe those areas where Norwood had positioned himself.
Dear oh Dear: At some point in history, nobody is quite sure when, footballers decided that rolling around in agony whenever an opponent’s limb brushed any part of their body was acceptable behaviour. Supporters of a certain vintage will remember the days when players tried to pretend they weren’t injured rather than the other way around. Saka has perfected the art of feigning pain, managing to get George Baldock booked early in the second half after rolling along the touchline following what used to be regarded as a routine shoulder barge. Moments earlier, he also ‘required treatment’ when one of the wing-back’s fingers appeared to touch his nose. Note the inverted commas.
Arteta’s Impact: Three months ago, Arsenal supporters could have been forgiven for wondering if their club had kept the receipt after paying Lille over £70m to sign Nicolas Pepe. The Ivory Coast international cut a sorry figure during the Londoners 1-0 defeat at Bramall Lane, missing a wonderful opportunity during the opening exchanges before fading into obscurity. On the evidence of that night, Christophe Galtier’s employers definitely got the better side of the bargain. But Pepe was half of Arsenal’s most dangerous partnership here, twice setting up Gabriel Martinelli before the interval. Martinelli, the young Brazilian, really should have taken at least one of those chances. Pepe’s improved performance suggests, as Wilder had warned beforehand, that the appointment of Mikel Arteta has given Arsenal greater conviction and purpose.
Don’t Forget About Billy: Speaking of missed chances, Lys Mousset spurned a glorious opportunity to give United the lead after only eight minutes when his header, from Enda Stevens’ cross, flew off target. Unmarked and having been able to track the trajectory of the ball, he will have been disappointed not to score. Likewise around 60 seconds or so later when he nodded over the crossbar from even closer range. Although the assistant referee had raised his flag to indicate an offside, replays on the press box monitors suggested VAR would have allowed the goal to stand had Mousset found the back of the net. Sat watching the drama unfold from the bench, Billy Sharp could have been forgiven for casting a glance in the direction of Wilder and his coaching staff. Both were the type of openings he has made a career out of exploiting. Mousset is a fine player. The same goes for his strike partner Oli McBurnie and David McGoldrick, who missed this game through injury. But Sharp is still the best finisher at Bramall Lane by some margin. Okay, he might have lost half a yard of pace. But it’s important to focus on what Sharp can do, rather than what he can’t.
A Reminder: United had been more than a match for Arsenal during the opening 45 minutes. In fact, on the balance of play, they might even have shaded the period on points. But they found themselves trailing at the interval when Martinelli pounced, following an interchange involving Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette, as Dean prepared to blow for the break. It was a well worked goal. But the Brazilian should not have been left unmarked on the edge of the six yard box. It was a reminder how costly lapses in concentration can be at this level. And another demonstration why, as several members of Wilder’s squad have noted in recent months, Premier League football is even more mentally demanding than it is physically.