Arsenal suffer deja vu vs. Sheffield United as bright attack let down by unreliable defending

Steve Nicol says Sheffield United are a top striker away from taking their play to the next level.

LONDON — As a neutral turning up for an Arsenal game, there’s little that quickens the pulse like seeing a central defensive partnership of David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi on the hosts’ teamsheet. After all, it’s a pretty decent sign that 90 minutes of high-octane entertainment awaits. Even if there might not be much quality football ahead, there’s likely to be some chaos.

The phrase “they’ve got a mistake in them” has rarely been more appropriate, but while it’s very good of Arsenal to think of us, the humble observers, it’s not the greatest winning strategy. It took seven minutes of their 1-1 draw against Sheffield United on Saturday for the “Mustafi-Luiz Experience” to deliver their first slice of entertainment, the German half of the double-act giving the ball away in his own area after some significant dithering.

An afternoon of high farce was on the menu. Alas, from that point genuine slapstick was disappointingly absent, but Arsenal produced a few moments of more prosaic bad defending to provide moments of despair for their fans and concern for Mikel Arteta, especially in that their backline conceded in the final 10 minutes to undo 80-plus minutes of hard work.

Sheffield United dominated the early exchanges and should really have taken the lead, particularly after Lys Mousset was gifted a couple of free headers in the opening 20 minutes. Later in the game, Oliver McBurnie was also left on his own and really should have given the visitors a goal before they eventually did equalise via John Fleck. This was a more low-key performance of defensive slackness than we might have expected, but it could have been equally as damaging for Arsenal’s prospects. After all, Saturday’s draw leaves them just seven points above the relegation zone, a whopping 10 points shy of the top four and, for perspective, 32 points behind league leaders Liverpool.

Meanwhile, the late goal was just reward for a hard-working Blades side that sit seventh in their first season since promotion. For all their excellence in 2019-20, scoring goals has not been Sheffield United’s greatest strength: they’ve got 25 in 23 games, outscored by Aston Villa in the relegation zone and half of the other teams below them in the table. It’s all a roundabout way of saying that a more potent team would surely have punished the Mustafi-Luiz axis more ruthlessly.

Perhaps we can’t be too harsh on Luiz and Mustafi in the end. As well as their own performances, they had Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka playing either side of them: both are fine players, but both are young and not natural defenders. They’ve also played together in only one league game this season, when they conceded twice to bottom of the table Norwich a few weeks ago, the Canaries’ goals coming as a result of standing off and watching as first Teemu Pukki then Todd Cantwell shot home from the edge of the box. They haven’t had much time to develop a partnership or understanding, but then again, you might say there’s a good reason why two potential agents of defensive chaos haven’t been paired together more this term.

With all this in mind, it makes Arsenal’s reported interest in PSG left-back Layvin Kurzawa even odder: Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac may be injured, but Saka did a reasonable enough job filling in on that side. Signing another left-back will not only block a promising youngster’s path but also distract attention away from a position where they really need upgrading. This is all obviously easier said than done, and Arsenal are working with more modest resources these days. Perhaps they are just waiting for William Saliba to arrive in the summer, but it would be a significant gamble to rely on a 19-year-old with 24 senior appearances to his name and who’s been out injured since November.

David Luiz, center, and Shkodran-Mustafi, right, were typically shaky as Arsenal came to regret their slew of missed chances to put the result beyond Sheffield United’s reach.

Interestingly, the post-match talk from both managers was of an Arsenal team profligate in attack, a side that should really have put the game to bed before Fleck’s equaliser with seven minutes remaining.

“I’m very disappointed,” Arteta said after the game. “I think the performance deserved three points. If you don’t put the game away… in the Premier League if you’re 1-0 up in the last 10-15 minutes, be careful because anything can happen.”

Chris Wilder was very much on the same page. “I didn’t think we were anywhere near our best today. I don’t know how much that came down to not being put to bed by the opposition. When teams don’t put you to bed, you’ve got an opportunity.”

Despite their consensus, it was Arsenal’s attack that might have given the most hope for fans inside the Emirates. Gabriel Martinelli continued his seriously impressive early career with a very passable Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang impression, scoring the opening goal by having that striker’s knack of being in the right place at the right time. Aubameyang, serving the first game of a three-match suspension after his red card against Crystal Palace last weekend, tweeted his appreciation from the stands.

“He’s an 18-year-old with all the enthusiasm,” said Arteta, “but as well he’s so brave to make decisions. All the time he’s in the middle of the goal waiting for the opportunity to come.”

In addition to Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah was greeted with enormous enthusiasm when he came off the bench, the sort of enthusiasm, in fact, usually reserved for new signings. The striker was recalled from his loan spell at Leeds with the initial intention of sending him back out, but as Arteta said, “circumstances changed,” and he’ll now be sticking around. Yet the work of their existing battery of attackers will always be undermined if they are so vulnerable at the back. Perhaps this is part of a wider problem, a more psychological malaise that has for some time hung over Arsenal like a grey cloud of ennui; it will take more than a transfer window to fix that problem.

As long as Mustafi and Luiz are the men Arsenal rely on for solidity and order in defence, the Arteta revolution will offer little more than entertainment for the rest of us.