The last fixture of game week nine sees Arsenal travel to Bramall Lane to take on newly-promoted Sheffield United. Whilst the two club’s respective league positions suggest that the Gunners should win comfortably, the Blades have taken life back in the top-flight very well and have already pushed Liverpool and Leicester close in addition to taking points from Chelsea. Clearly then, they represent a tricky proposition for Unai Emery’s side. In this article, I shall outline three players who I feel must start in order to give Arsenal the best possible chance of overcoming this significant obstacle.
1) Kieran Tierney
The summer-signing from Celtic has only featured twice so far for Arsenal, yet on both occasions looked perfectly at home on the left flank. He appears, based on this and his time at Celtic, equally adept going forward as well as defending his own penalty area, and his ability to cross the ball accurately adds a further string to his bow. Sheffield United have so far this season lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, and I fully expect this to continue. As a result, holding width and stretching the midfield will be critical. Tierney’s one-footedness could be a blessing in disguise in this situation, as he will be forced towards the touchline. Equally, being more defensively adept than Sead Kolasinac (admittedly not a difficult task) offers greater stability to a previously fragile Arsenal defence. Simply put, Tierney is not only the perfect player for this game, but he is also a significant upgrade on other options. He must start.
2) Hector Bellerin
As with Kieran Tierney, Bellerin is not only the best right-back option available, he is also perfectly suited for this game. The space against Sheffield United so far this season has largely been found in the wide areas, as was shown in games against Liverpool and Chelsea. Bellerin was one of the best attacking full-backs in the league before his injury last season, and if he can begin to reproduce this it will benefit the side massively.
His return is particularly crucial in this game since Nicolas Pepe has a strong tendency to cut inside onto his stronger left foot. Having someone overlapping will not only benefit the Ivorian but provide some much-needed width in the Gunners side. Calum Chambers has hardly put a foot wrong at right-back, but simply by virtue of his attacking prowess and creative ability Hector Bellerin must be returned to the starting line-up. Hopefully, we will see Chambers in his more natural central position sooner rather than later.
3) Mesut Ozil
This selection is sure to ruffle some feathers. However, it is safe to say that Arsenal have lacked attacking creativity in the league so far this season. In fact, they have been relying on Aubameyang’s brilliance to gain points. The divisive German has been largely in the cold so far, featuring only once (against Watford) in the league. Like him or not, however, the fact is that he remains Arsenal’s best creative midfielder. Against a defensive side who generally sit back and give up possession like Sheffield United, it is crucial that Arsenal operate with a creative midfielder who can thread passes through to the forwards.
Previously, I would not have even suggested Mesut Ozil, believing him firmly out of Unai Emery’s plans. However, this week Emery has clarified his stance, claiming that ‘if we need him, we are going to use him because with his skills in some matches we are going to need him’. The Spaniard also claimed that he was ‘happy’ with his midfielder’s performances in training, opening the door for his return to the side [Arsenal.com]. In terms of skillset, piercing passes against a defensive side sound perfectly suited to Mesut, and if he is in the picture he must be selected simply on this basis. The options around him include Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock, but neither are no.10s, nor do they have an eye for a pass in the same way as Ozil. This appears a game made for the German and offers him a real chance to work his way back into the first eleven.
In short, Sheffield United are an excellent defensive unit, working hard for each other and making it difficult for the opposition. Two ways around this issue are to stretch the pitch and exploit the gaps that a defensive three always leaves, or to be creative enough in central areas to pass through the defence. Due to this, I have chosen players who fulfil either of these criteria and who I think will give Arsenal the best chance of taking three points back to North London.