This was never going to be the defining night of Arsenal’s season and the level of pressure Mikel Arteta will face in the coming months – that’s five days from now in Prague. But with that in mind, a performance and a result to prepare for a game that will determine whether the Gunners’ best avenue in Europe next season remains open was certainly welcome for Arteta.
Of course, if they could have picked one side to face before the second leg against Slavia Prague on Thursday, it would have been Sheffield United. Painfully lacking in quality once again, their relegation from the Premier League could be confirmed as early as next weekend after another tame demonstration against a side somewhat lacking in confidence following recent demonstrations.
But Arsenal still had to do the job and keep their feeble hopes of European qualification alive through their league qualification. What happens in the two national cup competitions could still determine the likelihood of that happening. In the end, this was a fairly straightforward result: a result that will undoubtedly be pleasant for Arteta, given that his team has a habit of making life undoubtedly more stressful than it needs to be at times.
Two well-scored goals from Alexandre Lacazette were the highlight, but it was Arsenal’s full display that pleased their coach the most. Resolved in the back, and looking much more spirited in attack, this was all he would have hoped to see before his trip to Prague this week.
Arteta gave a surprise by naming Granit Xhaka on the left back, pushing Bukayo Saka later in an advanced role behind Alexandre Lacazette. But as the first half progressed, the decision to release Saka into an attacking role certainly paid off, and when the first goal of the match came just after half an hour, it was no less than what Arsenal deserved. .
Sheffield United, as it has been so often this season, certainly did not fall short on effort. The best opportunity in the early exchanges fell to the home team, when David McGoldrick fired wide, but Arsenal soon established dominant control in the proceedings. And there were clear telltale signs throughout the half that eventually the pressure from the visitors would pay off with a goal.
It could also, and perhaps should, have come sooner than it did. Aaron Ramsdale was somewhat fortunate when his punt attempt bounced off Lacazette and into his hands, before Gabriel Martinelli fired wide of Ramsdale’s goal after being released down the left. And by the time John Egan blocked Callum Chambers’ shot down the line, it seemed like a matter of time.
Saka was also very involved in the moment she broke the deadlock. A sublime step of construction game saw Saka and Dani Ceballos combine, with the latter’s wonderful shoe releasing Lacazette in the area. The Frenchman had the composure and precision to guide the ball past the oncoming Ramsdale and put Arsenal in the lead.
Unfortunately for the locals, the first goal did not stop the pressure. Martinelli’s shot was blocked by a tailing David McGoldrick to deny Arsenal a second, and the fact that a tame effort by Egan that was easily stopped by Bernd Leno represented United’s best chance in the half underscored that, in the interval, they would have been grateful if only one came in behind.
But the momentum stayed with Arsenal after the break. Paul Heckingbottom rolled the dice and introduced Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie to try and bring the Blades’ attack to life. It did not work. Arsenal’s second goal always came, and when it did, it came from an unforgivable United mistake.
John Lundstram gave up the ball unnecessarily in his own court, and while Ramsdale did well to save Nicolas Pépé’s effort on goal, he could only put him in the way of Martinelli, who took advantage to double Arsenal’s lead. Realistically, even with half an hour to go, that was the game done and dusted off.
There was not even a smell of a final in the home team’s rostrum, which returns to the Championship with a groan. And Arsenal made their hosts pay in the final five minutes, when Lacazette claimed his second with an expert finish after being played by Thomas Partey as the Blades defense opened with all too familiar ease. Their season is long over, but Arsenal’s is still up for grabs.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism