The story of another miserable night at Bramall Lane, as Sheffield United are brushed aside by Arsenal
Another game, another defeat and another painful reminder about both the power of established Premier League teams.
Oh, and another step closer towards the Championship too for Sheffield United whose shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed by an Arsenal side with plenty of its own. Despite that, one suspects the margin of victory Mikel Arteta’s men enjoyed would have been even greater had they ever been truly pushed.
Two goals from Alexandre Lacazette, bookending Gabriel Martinell’s effort following a catastrophic mistake by John Lundstram, condemned United to their 25th defeat in 31 Premier League outings - leaving them 18 points of safety with only seven of the campaign remaining.
This was another sobering and draining experience for the hosts, who looked thoroughly dispirited as they made their way off the pitch when referee Peter Bankes brought proceedings to a close. Flatter, in fact, than a badly punctured tyre.
A STRONG TONIC IS REQUIRED
This season has been so gruelling at Bramall Lane, the physical fatigue United are inevitably feeling after spending the best part of seven months chasing top-flight footballers around a pitch appears to have crept into their thought process too.
Paul Heckingbottom is a talented coach - and a brave one too after accepting the challenge of trying to resuscitate the club following Chris Wilder’s departure last month. But hamstrung by injuries and a top-heavy squad, the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief has persisted with effectively the same tactics and formation employed by his predecessor. Lundstram too, much to the frustration of many United followers given his contract situation and desperately poor form.
The Liverpudlian struggled to make much of an impression on the fixture. But in fairness, he wasn’t the only one of the players Heckingbottom had at his disposal who failed to pose Arsenal any serious questions.
Lundstram’s reputation among supporters plummeted still further, though, when his mistake set in motion the chain of events which ended with Martinelli doubling Arsenal’s advantage.
PERSPIRATION BUT NO PENETRATION
United did change their shape after the interval, when Ben Osborn was shunted forward from defence into midfield. If it was ploy to disrupt Arsenal’s fluency and dominance of the football it worked, with United enjoying some decent periods of possession and field position. The only trouble was, they lacked the creativity or craft to make the most of either.
United did not lack for industry. Invention, however, was another matter entirely.
The same could not be said for Arsenal, with Nicolas Pepe producing a perfectly flighted pass to present Lacazette with his second, after the Frenchman had netted an exquisitely crafted first.
UNBALANCED AND NOT RUTHLESS
One area of the pitch where United are laden with options, however, is in attack. None of them could be described as prolific, with David McGoldrick entering this fixture as the club’s leading scorer with seven goals to his name all term. But they do all bring something slightly different to the table, and it was the power, stretch and pace of Oliver Burke United decided would be the ideal foil for McGoldrick here.
After a flurry of chances for Arsenal, McGoldrick went close during the opening exchanges after combining with Osborn. But as the half unfolded, so the visitors’ momentum grew. It was no surprise therefore, with Callum Chambers and Gabriel Martinelli already going close, to see Lacazette put them in front. The finish, past an despairing Aaron Ramsdale and into the far corner of the net, was as smooth as the build up.
After Chambers’ effort was blocked at close range before Oliver Norwood deflected Martinelli’s shot into the side-netting, Lacazette’s strike was vintage Arsenal.
But the Londoners, who made the journey north in midtable, are not the club of old with the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Berkamp and Robert Pires now a distant memory.
Still, with one eye on Thursday’s Europa League tie against Slavia Prague, Arteta felt comfortable enough making five changes to his starting eleven.
For the majority of the contest, the Basque ambled around his technical area with the air of someone perfectly at ease with everything he was seeing.
However, at the beginning of the second period, with Burke trying to barge his way through Arsenal’s rearguard and Osborn slavishly beavering away, Arteta became a little more agitated. Not angry or full of angst. Rather, barking instructions at his players as he orchestrated the subtle little changes he felt would curb United’s ambition.
BURKE AND BEN
Burke is one of those terribly frustrating players you know should be capable of producing a lot more than he does. Strong, speedy and possessing a solid technique, the Scot nevertheless has a habit of struggling to apply the finishing touches to his impressive build-up play.
One moment, just before the hour mark, summed Burke up perfectly. After breaking Arsenal’s lines, he appeared to lose his footing as he bore down on Bernd Leno. But it is precisely because he has never been able to address this issue in his game that Burke is plying his trade in South Yorkshire rather than somewhere a little more glamorous, Well, glamorous in a footballing sense at least.
Osborn, United’s most effective performer, kept scampering about in an attempt to change the flow of the action.
But with Martinelli tapping home after Pepe’s shot was parried by Ramsdale and then Lacazette completing his brace, it proved a fruitless task as Arsenal coasted towards their first clean sheet since January.