Sheffield United inflicted a second league defeat of the season on Unai Emery’s men thanks to Lys Mousset’s first half winner, as Emery’s team selection was called into question following the omission of key players and a struggle to break down a well-drilled Sheffield United side.
The victory was Sheffield United’s first home victory since the opening day, and has lifted them up to 9th in the League.
So what has the game taught us to take forward into the next games?
Nicolas Pepe has endured a slow start to his Arsenal career following his £72 million move from Lille in the Summer. However, this was arguably one of his better performances, as he, along with Bukayo Saka, exposed flaws in the Sheffield United defence. Pepe in particular showed his ability and willingness to take players on, and this is highlighted by his number of take ons shown below. Sheffield United struggled to deal with his tricky nature, and it could be an area tat other teams target going forward, as they also struggled to cope with Moussa Djenepo in their defeat to Southampton earlier in the season.
Despite his promising performance on the ball and attempting to commit defenders, Pepe wasn’t able to add to his sole goal this season despite taking on the highest amount of shots from any Arsenal player on the pitch (3). This has taken his average up to 2.7 shots per game, and could be of interest in the shots/shots on target markets in games moving forward, especially against teams set up defending deep, as he is willing to chance his arm from long range. He was also guilty of missing a huge chance in the first half to give Arsenal the lead (xg of 0.6), so it’s worth noting that this could subsequently knock his confidence.
He is underperforming his personal xG over the season by 1.92 (1 goal to an xG of 2.92), and his only goal of the season came from the penalty spot against Aston Villa. He is however finding himself still taking on shots, and the xG statistics, plus factoring in his goalscoring form from previous seasons (22 goals at an xG of 21.23 last season), suggest that if he does continue to put in similar performances, it should click for the Ivorian.
Looking at a similar angle from a Sheffield United point of view, David McGoldrick is guilty of underperforming his xG by 2.41 this season, and what stands out is the nature of chances he is missing. As shown below, he is finding himself in the right areas, and compared to that of Pepe, many more are coming from inside the box, and suggest that he could be worth keeping an eye out for in the goal scoring markets in coming weeks, as he will continue to find himself in the right areas.
The xG map (shown below) shows the importance of Pepe’s miss in the first half, and highlights once again that Sheffield United have at times over-performed their xG, and does beg the question how long can it go on for. They are actually under-performing going forward, only scoring 8 goals to their 9.96 xG, however this is still a relatively low xG compared to the rest of the league, ranking them 16th. The stand out however is that they have only conceded 7 goals, compared to an xGa of 11.79, which suggests that if they don’t address this, they could find themselves starting to ship goals. Goal keeper Dean Henderson has been in fine form this season which has been a huge factor, whilst misses such as that of Nicolas Pepe have helped.
Chris Wilder did manage the game expertly and Arsenal barely mustered a chance in the second half, which does highlight that his game management is strong, and once Sheffield United go in front, they are particularly hard to break down. However, if sides can make them pay at 0-0, whether they are creating enough chances in games to come from behind awaits to be seen.
Unai Emery’s Selection:
Two key areas regarding Unai Emery’s tactical selections stand out from this game; his decision to play Callum Chambers at right back and his choice of player in the number 10 role.
An area that was identified pre-match where Arsenal could prosper was to create 2v1s out wide on Sheffield United’s wing backs, allowing Saka and Pepe the ability to drift inside and cause problems by running at the centre backs. This came to fruition for Saka and Pepe, however it was expected he would choose Bellerin due to the attacking output and his ability on the ball. Instead, he stuck with Callum Chambers, and this loyalty backfired. Although good enough defensively, the volume of the ball he received in attacking areas was counter-productive, as his inability to cross and lack of creativity as a full back was exposed, and Sheffield United were able to deal with his threat with ease. Shown below, he only completed one cross in the game, and although he did complete 21/25 passes in the Sheffield United attacking third, his lack of attacking threat meant that by seeing such a high volume of the ball, they struggled to break them down.
The other area of concern for Arsenal is Emery trying to find the balance of his midfield, and his selection issues were once again shown by his choice to start Joe Willock. Arsenal’s front three were able to stretch the Sheffield United backline in the first half, creating space in the number 10 position which was crying out for someone of Mesut Ozil’s talent to exploit. However, youngster Willock struggled to create any link, as shown by his sole pass completed in the final third.
Emery reacted by bringing on Ceballos at half time, and despite this, he struggled to find the cutting edge against a well drilled and defensively resolute Sheffield United side. As shown below, the three Sheffield United centre backs looked to sit deep, but the strikers and central midfielders looked to press high in phases, and this forced Ceballos deeper to pick the ball up, and unable to effect the play for periods of the second half. It was the change from Wilder to bring on Billy Sharp, followed by Oli McBurnie late on, which was imperative in this phased pressing, and helped stop Arsenal dictate possession high up for large periods.
From a betting perspective, the learnings from this game is given the unpredictability of Unai Emery’s team selection and shape, it is definitely worth approaching a lot of markets with caution without making a decision until the teams are released. For example, in previewing the game, I expected to see Bellerin/Tierney at full backs due to their ability to expose Sheffield United’s flanks, and in seeing Chambers in particular was starting, was more reserved in my judgement regarding Arsenal’s chances.
It is also worth noting that Wilder’s game management and tactical adaptations were imperative in getting the three points for Sheffield United, and moving forward if Sheffield United are to take the lead in games, keeping an eye on the under markets regarding goals could be the way forward, as he looks to see out games.
Mike Deans cards:
Mike Dean took his record for the season to 37 yellows and 2 red cards in the 8 games he’s refereed with 8 yellow cards. Every game bar one this season has seen him book 4 or more players, however it is worth noting that the bookies will start to clock onto this and could start to see any value quickly disappear. It is worth looking at why the players were booked, and given the open nature of the game, it was no surprise to see a number of players booked for cynical fouls, which in fairness to Dean, were bookable offences.
However, his leniency towards diving and time wasting was minimal, and although the correct decisions, are not yellow cards you’d expect to see in most games, and it is worth taking caution with the next game he referees. The tactical context of the game will also be worth considering, but there will always be angles to find value on the games he chooses to referee regarding team cards or individual card markets, but it is always worth factoring in the tactics/personnel involved, as well as if taking a dive in play, the context of the game.
Sheffield United travel to West Ham, who will be desperate to bounce back from a defeat to Everton on Saturday, where they lacked creativity in trying to break down Marco Silva’s side. However, they could learn from where Arsenal went wrong, and arguably possess similar players who could hurt Sheffield United, particularly in wide areas.
Arsenal host Vitoria on Thursday in the Europa League before hosting Crystal Palace on Sunday. The main worry ahead of Sunday’s game will be how they break down a team who look to play a low block, and have done effectively against Manchester United and West Ham this season, and Emery’s team selection will be key.