Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Sheffield United – tactical analysis
Gameweek 23 of the Premier League saw Sheffield United visit the Emirates to play against Arsenal. Prior to the match, Arsenal were in 10th place with 28 points. At this point in the season, it seems unlikely that Arsenal will be able to get into the top four, heck, even top six looks unrealistic. However, with a new manager who should hopefully be at the helm long term, Arsenal need to get used his playstyle, and try and win as many matches going into next season. Their opponents, Sheffield United were in sixth place, a fantastic achievement for a newly-promoted side, with 32 points. A spot in Europe would be a massive achievement for the club, and if the major clubs keep dropping points, as they currently seem to be doing, Sheffield United definitely have a chance.
There is still a lot of games left to play though, and both managers would likely be putting in all their focus on this match, rather than their end of the season goals. The reverse fixture that occurred in late October saw Sheffield United take all three points. Because of this, Arsenal had a point to prove, under their new manager, as having Sheffield United do the double over them in a season should be considered unacceptable considering the stature of their club.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics of both sides, using analysis to look at how Arsenal managed to get ahead, and how Sheffield United were able to get back into the match, for the points to be shared at the Emirates.
Arsenal under Mikel Arteta have strictly set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation since his arrival. A back four of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, Bukayo Saka were set up in front of goalkeeper Bernd Leno. Acting in the double pivot was Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka with Nicolas Pépé, Mesut Özil, and Gabriel Martinelli in front of them. The noticeable absentee was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was serving the first of his three-match ban for his red card during Arsenal’s draw against Crystal Palace
The away side set up in the 5-3-2 shape that they have been using regularly this season. Chris Wilder’s 5-3-2 has been seen as one of the most interesting and tactically innovative aspects of the Premier League this season. Against Arsenal, Dean Henderson was situated in net, with a back five of George Baldock, Chris Basham, John Egan, Jack O’Connell, and Enda Stevens situated in front of him. The midfield three consisted of John Lundstram, Oliver Norwood, and John Fleck. The striker partnership was the only change that Wilder had made post his side’s victory against West Ham United, with Oliver McBurnie retaining his spot, and Lys Mousset coming in for David McGoldrick.
A change in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1
Like mentioned above, Arsenal have been playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation since Arteta’s arrival, however, against Sheffield United, at times, it looked to be a back five, with Xhaka dropping deeper from his midfield position, and acting as the third centre-back.
The reasoning for this could be because of the threat of Sheffield United’s attack, specifically with the fact that they play with two strikers. Arsenal’s defence has been under scrutiny for several seasons now, due to both management, and personnel, and that has not changed this season. Arteta, knowing that he’s only been able to coach for a few weeks, and his defensive personnel has been hampered with injuries, decided to put Xhaka further deep for periods of the match to enforce that defensive stability.
The five-man defence had its positives and negatives. The positive was that it essentially worked in nullifying the threat of Sheffield United’s attacks, especially centrally. Both McBurnie, Mousset, and Billy Sharp, who came on for Mousset in the second half somewhat struggled to create, or finish their chances from open play.
Sheffield United’s workaround
The negative to the makeshift back five was that it created an unintentional new defensive issue for Arsenal. Without Xhaka in the middle, Torreiria was often alone in midfield covering side to side. This was obviously difficult for him, having to run from side to side, rather than only having to cover half the pitch. Sheffield United used this to their advantage by using the flanks to cross the ball into central areas. Since they were unsuccessful in attacking through the middle, for the most part, they resorted to crossing the ball into the box. 64% of Sheffield United’s crossing was accurate (compared to Arsenal’s 20%), and it was something Arsenal struggled to handle, both in preventing the crosses from coming in, and dealing with them once the ball made its way into the box.
Saka’s performance was one to admire against the Blades, especially since the 18-year-old was not playing in his preferred position at left wing. Usually, when a young wing-back is playing, they will either excel at going forward or defensively, not both. Saka though did not miss a beat, in both defence and attack.
Defensively, he won 100% of his duels, making it extremely difficult for United, especially because they seemed to be targetting him as the weak link. His positioning was excellent, and he played a big part in nullifying both Lundstram and Baldock. He also made 13 recoveries, an excellent number, considering his average for the last 5 matches has been a 6.4.
Offensively, not only did he garner the assist for Arsenal’s only goal, he seemed confident going forward, especially in the second half. He completed 100% of his dribbles in the attacking third and was actively looking for his teammates to put crosses into the box for.
It was not the best performance from either team, and there were elements that both managers will be disappointed that they were not able to win all three points. The affair was scrappy at times, and both teams were not consistent throughout the ninety. A draw is probably a fair result.
Arsenal will unhappy with a loss, but on the other hand, a defeat would not have been good, for team morale, as well as them getting further and further away from the top of the table. While there was a penalty shout against Pépé, Arsenal should not be relying on those decisions to win matches. Right now, Arsenal’s level is drawing matches they should be winning. Arteta needs more time with his squad, but he also needs backing in the summer from the Arsenal board, especially if they see him as a long term replacement that can lead them back to the club they were once were. Despite this being his first job as a head coach, Arteta has shown tactical acuteness, in this match, and others prior, and he will continue to learn and grow with experience.
Sheffield United were pushing for an equalizer and had they gotten one, Wilder would have delighted, obviously. However, three points would not have been fully deserved for Sheffield United, and the manager admitted that in his post-match comments. Sheffield United have largely been fantastic this season, but they were far from their best, and have been quite lacklustre for a couple of games in a row. It may be fatigue, which may be the reason we see Wilder rotate his team a bit more in the coming weeks. This fatigue is a small taste of what Sheffield United will have to deal with if they sneak into a Europe position for next season. Wilder will also need some backing from the board in order to ensure that their level does not drop completely.