Arsenal host Sheffield United at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon, looking to etch their way closer to the top-six sides on the Premier League table.
Despite improved performances and a progressively playing style under Mikel Arteta, the Gunners still find themselves mired in mid-table; whilst the Blades have maintained their steady start on their return to the top-flight, sitting four points ahead of us.
The Spaniard will be aware that it will take a process to get Arsenal to where he wants them to be, a process that will take more than just “improved performances”, as we now need to convert that into points. And with our ongoing struggles on the road, wins at home, especially against newly-promoted sides, are “non-negotiable”.
A win will give the Gunners a major boost, especially given that we have a chance to leapfrog a few teams on the log – which, of course, hinge upon results elsewhere going in our favour. We can also move within three points of 5th-placed Man United who are away at the juggernaut Liverpool tomorrow.
This is not about having top-four or top-six aspirations. Arteta has been fairly consistent in what he wants from the players as they get used to a new way of life; committed performances, leaving their hearts out there by not only doing what is expected of them, but also do it well. Because he has his beliefs that once we get that right, a positive upturn in results will follow.
He will have to do it without the talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the next three matches, who has scored 14 of our 29 league goals. However, this is also a shot for Nicolas Pépé and Alexandre Lacazette, who showed signs of finding form in recent matches, to step up and give good accounts for themselves.
Sheffield United are very hard to beat though, as they continue to punch above their weight. Chris Wilder’s side are 6th on the table and in their 22 league games have conceded just 21 goals; only Liverpool conceded less. It also doesn’t seem to matter whether they play home or away. In 11 home fixtures they earned 17 pts, with 15 pts coming from their 11 on the road, where they only lost twice (W3, D6).
In the reverse fixture at Bramall Lane back in October the Blades ran out 1-0 winners. When they scored after 30 minutes they were happy to let us have possession and shut up shop, and we hardly had a look in. However, that was during our “respect-era” and under Arteta we look more comfortable with the ball, playing higher up the pitch with a four-men attack. So if Wilder play the same tactics, it will certainly be a fascinating match.
Gabriel Martinelli is likely to step in for the suspended Aubameyang, with Bukayo Saka expected to fill in at left-back for Sead Kolasinac, who picked up a knock at Selhurst Park.
Lucas Torreira trained normally after initial fears that he may miss this game, however, he will still be assessed ahead of the match, with Matteo Guendouzi waiting in the wings. Hector Bellerìn is also expected to make the bench.
It goes without saying that the Gunners are not having a great season, but with Arteta at the helm you always feel we have a shot as we do create goal scoring chances. There are still too many nearly moments in front of goal though, and that is where we need to do better if we are to string together a winning run.
That said, the Blades are a very settled side and just so well-organised. Wilder may target Saka at left-back as our weak link as he will have hopes of not leaving London empty-handed.
Be that is it may, this could be a very edge-of-your-seat, running-out-of-nails-to-bite encounter, with the visitors likely to cause us issues. I do fancy our chances though. COYG!