Okay, I might be getting ahead of myself with the title but it’s another away win and yet another FA Cup semi-final we’ve reached. Sheffield United are no pushovers and they’ve quietly gone about their business this season nestled away amongst the “big boys” – a group I’m under no illusions we’re still a member of either. We also find ourselves in a similar predicament – arguably underdogs in the tournament we stand atop, as we share the semi-final podium with City, United and Chelsea. The table’s set to repeat our triumph of 2017 by dispatching the Premier League’s billionaire playthings but the odds are very much against us this time around…
N.B. Fuck Steve McMannaman, the mop-headed idiot.
Five changes to the starting lineup also brought about a tactical change as we switched to a back three, flanked by wingbacks in Tierney and Ainsley. Arteta would’ve been abundantly aware of the aerial ability of Sheffield but on the basis of how the game played out, even a more “protective” approach at the back did little to stem that kind of danger.
It was another case of “forced tinkering” as Arteta strives to get the most out of this squad in such a busy period and on the basis of our results, there’s plenty to like about his approach. Matteo Guendouzi was once again left out of the squad entirely and it’s this kind of disciplinarian we’ve been crying out for. Emery was fundamentally spineless in both his tactical approach and in man management, and even from what little we’ve seen of Arteta so far, he’s not afraid to slap some reality into people. Regardless of rumours circulating about Guendouzi, I think this kind of treatment has been overdue.
The central pivot of Xhaka and Willock, complimented by the wingbacks, brought more balance to our approach in the opposition half, with the latter bringing a directness we’ve often been lacking. As has been the case for much of the season, there’s still a long way to go for Joe in the final third; he doesn’t always find the right pass but there’s a lot to like about his direct and driving style of play. AMN’s return to his loathsome position at wingback brought greater balance to our right hand side and I can’t help but be frustrated by him because he’s actually good there! The numbers speak for themselves.
It was a sloppy start though, and that seems to be a feature of many of these post-restart games. He may have grown into the game, but Lacazette was quite wasteful in the early stages. The game came to life when he was so cruelly and viciously fouled just inside the box, much to Steve McMannaman’s grief and disbelief. Lacazette was blatantly “making the most of it”, despite limping off and receiving treatment, after the Sheffield defender so kindly “gave him the opportunity to go down”. Those quotes are verbatim by the way – it beggars belief that man still has a job.
Pépé stepped up – quite literally, with one of the more nonchalant techniques you’ll see – and cooly slotted the ball home. Just as his technique, his muted reaction perhaps points to the source of his power from dead-ball situations and I’m all for it. He had a great record from the spot at Lille and it’s always important to have someone like him in your team. More importantly, he’s also quiet in how he adds to his numbers and I think we’re going to be pleased come the end of the season.
You always sensed one wasn’t going to be enough, though and we even had the benefit of Lady Luck yesterday; on another day, Sheffield don’t head wide from 6 yards, nor do they stray offside. Thankfully, they didn’t and while I don’t want to linger too much on what-ifs, it was another game crying out for an enforcer in the box. We may just have one in William Saliba but until he’s playing in red and white, we have to keep plugging away with what we do have and that means sometimes shoving the likes of Kolasinac into somewhat unfamiliar positions.
I don’t need to be Nostradamus to tell you that if there was any way we were going to concede, it was going to be from Sheffield’s aerial threat. In reality, we can be frustrated with Kolasinac’s indecisive clearance and he does have the tendency to have these moments from time to time. The warning signs were there and you can’t say Sheffield weren’t good for a goal. Luckily, the response was immediate, as Saka’s market value and importance to this team continues to soar. Picking the ball up on the half way line, his immediate thought always seems to be to either beat the next man or drive forward. He ended up doing both and found Nketiah, who was quick to get his head up himself and found Pépé. After the ball spilled away from him, Ceballos reacted quickest and slipped it past Henderson, who seemed out of position but still, credit where it’s due.
Anyway, job done, now just the small task of seeing off City and Chelsea/United. No pressure, Mikel.
Also just a quick point on someone who’s been quietly impressive is the man tasked with replacing our player of the season, in Emi Martinez. I had my doubts even at the start of the season when he became our Europa League choice and while he did have a few iffy moments, they seem to have been put to bed now. It’s always difficult to assess goalkeepers when you have second or third string keepers staying on the books for years. He’s our longest serving player but he doesn’t have the appearances to show for it. I’ve no doubt that match time is important to a goalkeeper, especially one as physical and frenetic as the Premier League, but it’s not to say that’s he’s had his feet up all these years spent on the bench. Instead, we seem to have a player who’s relishing an opportunity and I’m happy to see him doing well. His distribution is a nice change of pace to Bernd Leno’s and he seems to have an eye for a pass, so I think we’ll be in safe hands until the end of the season.
Onwards and upwards.