Sheffield United's draw at Arsenal taught us something very important about The Blades
Chris Wilder called it “ridiculous” after watching his side start the match well and end it strongly but sometimes labour in between.
‘Significant’ would have been a better description, Because this fixture marked another important step in the development of a Sheffield United team which, after being warned even its best was not going to be good enough at Premier League level, is now mastering the art of avoiding defeat whenever they fail to fire.
John Fleck’s late goal, his fifth since helping Wilder’s squad gain promotion last term, denied Arsenal the three points which appeared to be heading their way following Gabriel Martinelli’s well-crafted opener.
A scruffy finish - the ball bouncing into the turf before spiralling beyond Bernd Leno and into the back of the net - the midfielder’s strike probably reflected United’s performance. After initially troubling Mikel Arteta’s star-studded side with their energy and movement, Wilder acknowledged they had sometimes ridden their luck before being rewarded for showing great resilience and persistence.
“If you can get a result without playing well,” the visiting manager acknowledged afterwards, “Then that’s a good quality.”
Despite facing opponents with over £280m worth of talent at their disposal, it was United who created the best two openings of the game before Martinelli turned home Bukayo Saka’s centre on the stroke of half-time.
Lys Mousset, parting Oli McBurnie in attack, headed an Enda Stevens cross over the bar before missing the target again from even closer range soon after. Although an offside flag had been raised, video replays suggested the ‘goal’ would have stood had the Frenchman hit the target.
As United lost their rhythm, so Arsenal’s influence grew and, after making a series of fine runs down the flank, it was no surprise when Saka produced the assist for Martinelli to score. Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette had earlier mesmerised United’s defence with an incisive interchange.
When McBurnie directed an attempt straight at Leno, Arsenal sensed victory. But Fleck exposed the soft underbelly which has left them languishing in mid-table after substitutes Callum Robinson and Billy Sharp, making a nuisance of himself in front of the German, ensured the ball reached him on the far side of the box.
Mo Besic, who had also been introduced from the bench, then tested Leno with an angled drive at the death.
“Maybe we would even have won it at the end,” Wilder said, after watching United end the contest in seventh. “That might have been undeserved but we always, with the attitude the lads have got, give ourselves a chance.”
Arsenal: Leno, Lacazette (Nketiah 74), Ozil, Torreira, Maitland-Niles, Pepe, Mustafi, Luiz, Xhaka, Martinelli, Saka. Not used: Martinez, Bellerin, Ceballos, Holding, Willock, Guendouzi.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Besic 77), Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Lundstram (Robinson 67), McBurnie, Mousset (Sharp 54). Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, K Freeman, Osborn.
Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral).