A win was the bare minimum, and they got it. Sheffield are not good, they’re rock-bottom and going down, Chris Wilder and his magic are off into the sunset and they have a squad with nothing to play for. I also didn’t think Slavia Prague were that good either, which still leaves me with a lingering disappointment.
It’s difficult to isolate this game without the Slavia tie acting like an unpleasant, context sandwich. Putting that disappointment to bed was at least made easier by Arsenal showing they can actually play some football. I’ve been critical of Arteta tinkering too much for his own good this season, so it’s only right to acknowledge when he also gets things right, regardless of the opposition. Saka playing as a No. 10 should have been more obvious, because he has all the right tools to excel there, so it was hardly surprising that looked comfortable there on the day. He found a new understanding with Pépé when usually their paths rarely meet, and both were able to tie things together with Lacazette ahead of them (when he wasn’t dropping back to the halfway line).
This wasn’t what I anticipated when I saw the team sheet and was starting to panic at the prospect of Ceballos playing at No. 10 instead, but Arteta seemed to be one step ahead of everyone. Granit Xhaka was the missing piece of the puzzle at left back instead of Saka and he did his job. In the absence of David Luiz, having another option who can whip the ball over to the opposite flank without issue and reliably play out from the back, it wasn’t such a crazy change. I wouldn’t want to see Xhaka covering there against anyone with even the slightest bit of pace, but it’s good to know that Arteta has some surprises in his locker.
In some ways, having some fodder like Sheffield United at hand was a convenient reset. Lacazette was able to put Thursday’s howlers behind him and given Aubameyang’s illness, Arteta could well be trusting Lacazette again this Thursday and will need him doing more of the same. It was also obvious to see the benefits he enjoyed in having runners either side of him and players to combine with. Simply put, I can see more problems this Thursday if Arteta reverts to some of our more pace-averse options in wide areas.
I really liked the way we set up: 3 defenders, Partey the pivot in front making a diamond; Ceballos, Martinelli and Lacazette linking up on the left, and Saka, Pepe and Chambers linking up the right. Good to have a triangle on each side to create rotations
Martinelli and his boundless energy was nothing short of what I expected, but given his rare opportunities in actually starting games – his last coming against Man. United when he was hooked at half time – it was important to see signs of progress. He was clearly desperate for a goal, shooting on either foot before he got his tap in, but the speed and directness of his play were the eye-catchers. I think it’s all well and good for Arteta to speak about protecting players and how highly he rates them, but I still don’t really buy it as an excuse for not playing Martinelli more. He’s clearly raw and might not do what Arteta says down to a tee but if his English in the post-match interview was anything to go by, I’d much rather have Arteta explain that to him and give him more time to learn on the pitch over his Brazilian counterpart. With Nketiah’s recent lack of playtime, and Balogun finally getting a contracted sorted, I’m also now far from convinced when Arteta publicly simply backs a player – playing time is what matters.
Playing time also matters when you’re striving for consistency, and in Nicolas Pépé, he has perhaps suffered most on this front. In the last two seasons, only Aubameyang and Lacazette have more goal involvements, which is unsurprising that he’s only bested by these two given the differences in playing time and consistent spells in the team. Even though so much of what he does is rough around the edges, there’s still more than enough to like and the biggest catch of all is end product. If a player misplaces passes more often than the team’s metronome, I’m okay with that. His responsibility is in the final third and as evidenced by those goal involvements, he is clearly doing the right things there. His shot that afforded Martinelli the tap-in was well-placed, and this was after he’d intercepted the ball and then burst into the box after resisting pressure (worth noting that the interception came after some excellent press from none other than my main man Willian). Simply put, his efforts on goal and involvements in the box are often there or thereabouts and yet, he’s often had his starting place swept out from underneath him immediately after “disappointing” in big games, even when the rest of the team disappoints too. I’ve made this point plenty of times before, but I can’t help but mention it again when his potential is so glaring.
The real joy from this game was simply the goals, for a change. All too often lately, it’s been difficult to enjoy them. Fear of the bastard VAR swooping in like the bastard eye-in-the-sky that it is, fear of holding onto a lead and getting a result, the complications that come with scoring in two-legged knockout matches and caring more about the result than the performance. While every team outside the top two struggles to make up their minds about where they’d like to finish this season, I’ve taken a backseat with Arsenal’s domestic campaign because they’re hilariously inconsistent and I was frankly bored of having my hopes of a Top Four finish /I am delusional/ dashed every week.
Yesterday was a perfect throwback to simpler times when Arsenal would so routinely hound and toy with struggling teams. Xhaka, Ceballos, Pépé, Partey, Chambers, Saka and of course Lacazette all took part in the first goal and as bad as Sheffield were on the day, opening the account with a goal like that really hit the spot.
The second took some time to come, after an inevitable downturn, but seeing a player like Martinelli get his just deserts – even if it was only a tap-in – is good for the soul, as was his assurance after the game that he would be alright to play on Thursday.
The third was more thanks to individual quality, with Partey looking right at home as the centrepiece of the midfield. One deft shimmy was all it took to find space and undeterred by Thursday’s antics, Lacazette was happy to run off the last man and such was the quality of the pass from Partey, he didn’t need to take a touch and overthink anything. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking Lacazette’s full potential though, because he’s brilliant at penalties – find a way to stop him taking too many touches and it’s job done.
And in closing, a win really was the bare minimum and this feeling will no doubt be short-lived because Thursday is where it matters and the drubbing against Sheffield won’t help in the slightest if Arsenal fly back from Prague empty handed.