Sheffield United 1-2 Arsenal: Right-hand side shows signs of functionality as Pepe comes to life
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
“We’re the famous Arsenal and we’re going to an empty Wembley.”
Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but the novelty of traveling to the national stadium is still there. Dani Ceballos’ 91st minute winner booking our place in another FA Cup semi-final, as Mikel Arteta looks to bring a shining light to a traumatic and turbulent season at the club on and off the pitch by delivering a euphoric 14th trophy in the prestigious competition.
Far from a spectacular performance, but a very impressive result at a side that, despite their poor form since the restart, are still very difficult to play against. Their direct physical approach caused us problems in the second period as they pushed for an equaliser, but on the whole we withheld the pressure well and secured our place in the final four- essentially all that matters in a knockout competition.
The promising offensive play came predominantly in the first 45 minutes, as we dominated possession, and began to create some good openings as the half went on. One interesting and very encouraging development in our system was that the right-side appeared to actually function to an extent. Whilst it was far from the electric fluidity we aspire for, there were promising signs as Pepe looked bright and combined well with those around him.
In recent games and in Arteta’s tenure thus far in general, we’ve been quite lop-sided in our attacking endeavours. There’s definitely been a drastic focus on our left-hand side, and it’s been the area that has provided us with the majority of our threat. The overlapping runs from our wing-back or full-back, with Aubameyang drifting inside making the diagonal runs. It’s been a rare area of functionality in a team that has been largely dysfunctional in its offensive approach.
Contrarily, our right-hand side has not been effective at all. The insistence from Arteta to use his right-back as an inverted, auxiliary central midfielder has often left Nicolas Pepe isolated out wide, with nobody to play off and nobody to play in on the overlap. He’s seen far too little of the ball and when he has received it, it’s often miles from anybody, and we’re essentially left relying on the individual skill he possesses to beat several men and then produce a quality delivery or shot.
Arteta clearly looked to address this issue with his team selection against Sheffield United. He packed players close to Pepe, allowing him to play off them and create some promising combination play. He had Ainsley Maitland-Niles behind him, providing a constant outlet either backwards or on the overlap, whilst Joe Willock was just inside him and Alex Lacazette a constant option diagonally in front of him. Every time he received the ball (which was significantly more than in previous games), he had at least three immediate choices of pass, which made his actions a lot less predictable, and also meant he was less reliant on himself having to work miracles with his close control and nifty footwork. With the 3-4-3 set-up, he was also deployed in a narrower role, where he’s arguable a lot more effective, attacking the half spaces and more involved in the build-up play.
Many may argue looking to tweak your system so dramatically to accommodate for one player who has underwhelmed for large parts of this season seems unreasonable, but by adapting for Pepe, we completely enhanced an entire component of our attack, making us a lot less one dimensional going forward. Yes, this did somewhat compromise the effectiveness of our left-hand side, with Saka far less influential than in previous games, but Tierney’s direct running and efficient deliveries still made him a threat.
Many of our promising attacks involved Pepe, as he looked liberated by the change of system on his side. Aside from the opener, the Ivorian was also presented with our two best first half opportunities, one after nice link up play with Lacazette forcing Henderson into a save, and the other after a cut back from Tierney. His movement to get in behind for the winner was also crucial.
Overall, he looked sharper, more engaged and ultimately happier in this role, and it certainly made us a more cohesive attacking unit. Whilst this certainly wasn’t sustained into the second half, where we again looked leggy and Sheffield United shifted their approach, the first half signs were very encouraging.
There’ve been a few moments where we’ve thought the former Lille man may kick on this season, but the change of system to one that suits him has never happened prior to this point, and Arteta may think twice about the idea of having an overlapping full-back on his side rather than an inverted one.
Whilst there is certainly a lot for Arteta to work on, with our vulnerabilities from set-pieces and the way in which we withered in the second half particularly disconcerting, overall he must look at the promising signs and the fact we secured our place in the next round. It was a rare good day for us, and we must enjoy them when we get them this season.