Sheffield United vs Slavia Prague: Arteta Vindicates Game Management Three Days Too Late
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
I hope I’m not treading on too heavily on Vinay's toes with this piece, but I can’t remain silent. I’m a massive Mikel Arteta fan, but he has one nasty habit that drives me up the wall: his substitutions are far too conservative, and he doesn’t see games out properly. Let me explain further.
We drew 1-1 against Slavia Prague last Thursday, and it felt like a 6-0 loss. We dominated the game, without converting chances, and took a 94th minute goal right in the teeth. Should we have won the match? Yes. By a larger margin? Yes. But that’s all in the past now. What isn’t in the past are the lessons we can learn from that match, lessons Mikel Arteta seems to have at least figured out, in part.
The simplest question is, why did we concede? Well, we failed to defend a corner. Okay, well why did we concede a corner in the first place? We allowed our backline to come under pressure, and although Cedric should have just cleared the f**king ball (thanks for the assist on that one Granit), he didn’t have the requisite support, given the position he was in. Why didn’t he have that support? Arsenal were no longer controlling the game.
We had lost our top-end pressure—Smith Rowe picked up a knock, sure, but that in no way excuses the lack of intensity—and as a result invited pressure onto our own backline. Teams get desperate at the end of matches, throw bodies forward. That’s a part of every football match from the time you leave diapers, but to give them the opportunity to do so without offering a scrap of resistance, is foolhardy at best.
Bringing on Pepe was a good idea, as he truly brought a new element to the attack, but without support in possession he got frustrated. Auba missed a sitter, played an electric pass to Pepe, and promptly went missing. Martinelli added a spark to the team, but got isolated up top with no support. Elneny was anonymous, Ceballos even worse. But there was no clear tactical briefing, no united reason for making those substitutions as he did, or at least there didn’t appear to be any sort of master plan. Our momentum faded, fizzled, and guttered out, just in time for that crucial phase where we needed cohesion most of all.
Now it’s not all on Arteta’s shoulders. The players simply must be mentally stronger in order to avoid conceding in situations like that. But unfortunate injuries aside, our starting XI had Slavia scrambling for a majority of the match, and Arteta’s defensive game management ruined that, almost completely. The Czech side were entirely ineffectual when we kept them penned into their own half, and we invited them out of that trap.
Fast forward to Sunday’s match against Sheffield United, and two key things changed from the Slavia tie. And for all you naysayers out there, the level of opposition wasn’t one of them. Slavia’s keeper lost possession eleven times that game, and Aaron Ramsdale was pretty much The Blades’ biggest threat. Both teams were resoundingly shite, and that’s all there is to it. No, the two things that changed were the forward intensity and the intelligence of Arteta’s game management.
The Best Defense is a Good Attack
It’s fair to say Arteta tactically outclassed both Jindřich Trpišovský and caretaker Paul Heckingbottom with ease. We had both sides on the ropes for a majority of both matches, and there’s no two ways about that. Bringing on Willian for the injured Bukayo Saka - please let it be a deadleg—was the best substitution available to Arteta given his rather threadbare bench, and other than that, the Spaniard let the players who had been doing such excellent work throughout the match continue to thrive and move as a team.
Instead of chopping and changing as his predecessor might have done, and as he did on Thursday, Arteta recognized that the team has the ability to dominate the game without any extra impetus, which he failed to do against Slavia. We saw how instantly Pepe changed that game. Bringing him on ten minutes earlier, potentially for the ineffectual Willian, and dropping Smith Rowe deeper could have yielded bountiful results. Against the Blades, he chose a strategy that would maintain our constant forward pressure, rather than hamstring it, and it resulted in two late goals to add to our tally, rather than a heartbreaker at the death.
More than that, though, his introductions of Elneny and Nketiah were incredibly astute. Noticing that Willian was getting swallowed up in the center of the park, Arteta yanked the goalscoring Martinelli—who had already picked up a knock—and shifted Willian wide, allowing for a flatter midfield trio that stifled all of Sheffield’s attempts to break into the final third, a decision which resulted in the scoring of our third goal thanks to a brilliant pass from Thomas Partey. We continued to control the game, albeit with new personnel.
Then, as Lacazette tired later on, as he is wont to do, the introduction of Nketiah—who’s very good at running around and hassling opposition backlines—kept Sheffield United honest, and provided that little exrta forward thrust to keep the Arsenal press running smoothly to se out the match, something we could have used on Thursday. I'm making it seem far more simple than it is, but maintaining forward pressure for two more minutes at home to Slavia could have secured us a win and a clean sheet at home, both of which we could have desperately used.
If Mikel has indeed learned his lesson against Sheffield United, he's learned it three days too late, but at least he's learning, especially given these sort of issues have been shooting us in the foot more often than not of late. We have yet to see if he can implement it in three days' time, but I'm optimistic. We have nothing to lose anymore.