As expected, Mikel Arteta rotated his side for the trip to Sheffield United, and again went with a back three. With Kieran Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as wing-backs, we had Alexandre Lacazette up top with Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka floating around off him in a front three, a midfield two behind.
We didn’t start particularly well, and the stage was set for what was to come: the home side would try to get it to Oli McBurnie who’d win it in the air and from there some chaos would reign. It is something we struggle with, but the way commentators and pundits talk, Arsenal are the only team in the history of football ever to have lost an aerial duel. Can we do better? Sure. But come on.
Anyway, we lost an aerial duel and Sheffield United had the ball in the back of the net. Oh no. But wait, is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the VARman waiting in the Sky and the goal was ruled out – quite rightly too – for offside.
Steve McManaman voice level: Slightly excited and disappointed regular human.
A while later I was wondering why Joe Willock took such a terrible corner but it turns out it was all part of the tactical plan because the ball came to Saka, his cross was cleared, Lacazette was fed just inside the box and Chris Basham fouled the former French international. Was it much of a foul? No. Was it still a foul? Yes. Was it in the box? Yes. Therefore it’s a penalty. It’s one of those that if it happened in midfield and the ref gave a free kick nobody would argue with him, so my first thought is ‘Don’t do it in the box’.
Nicolas Pepe stepped up to take the penalty, stuck it away in the bottom corner, to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal.
Steve McManaman voice level: The outraged squeak of a pre-pubescent teenage boy whose mother comes into his bedroom without knocking.
Pepe then tested the keeper with a shot after Lacazette’s best bit of play in the entire game, before a Sheffield United player had to go off for rugby tackling Joe Willock, a foul for which Arsenal did not get a free kick. Then Willock got absolutely flattened on the edge of our box which led the gruesome twosome in the commentary positions to somehow declare this a foul by the Arsenal man.
If that makes no sense to you, join the club, but then this is a pair who saw this graphic pop up on screen – with Arsenal 1-0 up by the way, and having recently seen Pepe denied a second goal by the keeper – and chuckled away at how Arsenal were 1-0 up without having had a shot on target.
If only there were some clue as to which team, leading the game of football with a shot that went in, might be the one to have had shots on target. Maybe they could use a colour scheme to give them a clue next time.
A note for Willock, he is still raw and there are things about his game which can improve, but twice yesterday he fed overlapping full-backs perfectly, leading to chances for us. He brings some drive to midfield, and I like what he does while still recognising there is room for improvement.
The second half was not quite as good from an Arsenal perspective. We lost David Luiz through injury, an ankle problem said Mikel Arteta afterwards … which makes the footage of him with an ice-pack on his knee quite funny to me. Sheffield United were dominant in terms of possession, if not necessarily chances, but they did have the ball in the net again, once more it was ruled out by VAR for offside.
Steve McManaman voice level: A Bronski Beat tribute act who catches his ball sack in his zip as he’s doing up his trousers.
The home side had at least one very good chance, after which I saw Kieran Tierney turn around do a ‘WTF ARE YOU AT?’ to Kolasinac. Speaking of Tierney, I thoroughly enjoyed his performance down the left hand side. Remember, this is a lad playing just his third game in 7 months, and he can’t be even close to fully fit and match sharp. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can produce when he is.
We made some changes, they made some changes, and the game was heading towards the conclusion when they equalised after what I thought was a bizarre sequence of play. First up, Eddie Nketiah was somehow adjudged to have fouled someone in their box when he was just stronger – and in possession – which denied him a sight of goal. Then Granit Xhaka, otherwise pretty good, made one of those Xhaka passes that when you see it you think ‘Oh, this could come back and bite us’. From there Sheffield United won a throw in, it was fired in by Billy Longthrow, Rob Holding leaped through the air … and then completely missed the ball, which then led to Kolasinac booting it off Mustafi and into the path of McGoldrick who made it 1-1 much to the chagrin of his Dad, Eddie. A Keystone Cops goal if ever there was one.
Steve McManaman voice level: Please click the player below.
Not ideal. Not ideal at all. We don’t need extra-time at the moment, so conceding so late is a bit of a problem. This is where we came up with an exceptionally good idea – scoring another goal. It’s one I feel we should implement more often. They had a couple of corners – watch out for those headers, lads! – but then Saka picked up a headed clearance in midfield and set off on a run. Bear in mind this was in the 91st minute of his fourth game in 10 days, and he drove at them, fed Eddie who found Pepe in the box. He bamboozled the defender with a deliberately bad cut-back which led to Ceballos picking the ball up, nobody went near him and he slid the ball home for the winner.
Steve McManaman voice level: You know when Mariah Carey does those high bits in her songs? Well, like that, but with a side-order of crushing disappointment.
A telling contribution from the Spaniard, and late on he was clearly fouled in midfield as we saw out the game. I think it was Fleck who won a header but stuck his studs in the chest of his opponent. The referee gave us a free kick, and on TV McManaman’s voice became so high-pitched it was inaudible to human ears. A pundit dog-whistle that made my German Shepherds look at me as if to say ‘What is that terrible noise and how on earth does he get so much money to make it?’
I could not provide them with an answer to that last part. Nor with any reasonable explanation as to why he wasn’t at all upset when Kolasinac was pushed off the pitch in another one of ‘those’ fouls which football just accepts as rough and tumble but which are anything but.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta declared himself pretty pleased with the day’s work:
We have to bear in mind that we played four away games, I think we’re the only team that has done that. With Manchester City and all the things that happened over there, then the way we threw the game away at Brighton, it was a very different game. I am very pleased today, I never fault the effort of the players. I am really happy about how the front players are going about the defensive job, we still have big gaps to improve in many areas but I am really happy today.
Our reward for winning yesterday is a semi-final with Man City. That’s not going to be easy, but we’ve beaten them at this stage before and you just never know 100% when it comes to cup football. I’d say you could probably know around 96.32%, but there’s that other 3.68% that remains an uncertainty. It’s a bit ‘So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance‘, but football is strange and weird so let’s see what happens.
I mentioned Tierney as a real positive, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Pepe too. He was much more involved, leading to some post-game praise from the boss, but I think this is also because we got him the ball more often than we did in previous games. Arteta is hoping this is the moment where it really clicks for him. Fingers crossed that’s the case.
Attention will now turn to Wednesday’s home game against Norwich in the Premier League. This is a very trying schedule, but it’s two wins in a row and after what came before you can’t really complain about that.
James and I will be here a bit later this morning to discuss it all for the podcast. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
The podcast will be out for you mid-morning, or thereabouts. Until then, take it easy.