Arsenal 1 Sheffield United 1
Arsenal thought they had done enough. Gabriel Martinelli’s second league goal for the Gunners looked like it was going to see off a spirited Sheffield United at the Emirates - until the Blades struck with seven minutes remaining, through a fine shot by John Fleck.
It was a salutary lesson for the hosts in what was a stop-start affair. Arsenal, overall, only threatened occasionally to tilt at maximum power to the notable disappointment of their supporters. Hotly-tipped Brazilian Martinelli’s 43rd minute effort had settled a few nerves at that point against an industrious side which has surprised so many onlookers in the Premier League for the last few months.
And while Martinelli did his cause for more regular inclusion by Mikel Arteta no harm, the Arsenal manager will be clearly frustrated at this team’s lack of rhythm and domination in key areas of the pitch. Time and diligence on the training ground will, presumably, address this.
Mesut Ozil was on the fringe of things yet again and Pepe was guilty of profligacy too. As Arteta continues to fine tune his squad, an aptitude for final ball execution is also a pressing issue. The mute acceptance at the end is a statement in itself of exactly where the Gunners are right now, an often stodgy work-in-progress.
Arteta had spoken in the match programme of his admiration for sixth-placed Sheffield United’s progress and you strongly suspect in the short to medium term, a similar work ethic will be established at the Emirates under his watch.
Much was expected of the Blades in north London as they had only succumbed to Liverpool and Manchester City on the road this season. However, it was fully 49 years since they tasted victory on Arsenal soil.
The immediate task for the new Gunners’ coach, of course, was an elevation up the table from an unacceptable 10th place prior to kick off. Amid a feisty opening, Oliver Norwood was booked; the former Northern Ireland midfielder went in rather late and needlessly on Alexandre Lacazette with no immediate danger.
Arsenal, though, should have opened the scoring in the 13th minute, but *Gabriel Martinelli – who has shown real promise in the Europa League this term – scuffed his effort when superbly set up by Pepe on a fast breakaway started imaginatively by Lacazette.
Martinelli, in the Arsenal side, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suspended for the next three games, was linking up well with a sprightly Pepe early on. Indeed, the bulk of the play was entrenched in the United half, with fan favourite Lucas Torreira once again exhibiting tigerish instincts across the engine room.
Arteta appeared rather animated at times, with Arsenal struggling to make capital in the final third; a ponderous trend which began to slowly embolden the Blades, camped in for a counter-attacking strategy.
So it was somewhat surprising that just two minutes to the interval, Arsenal finally found a way through Sheffield United who will doubtless be disappointed at being opened up so easily.
Martinelli completed the move, started intricately by the hitherto quiet Ozil and, from a cross by Bukayo Saka, the Brazilian bundled home from four yards.
Relief for the home supporters, relief for Arteta, still imprinting his own signature on this team. And at the beginning of the second half it was obvious Sheffield United were primed to be more assertive, with prospects for the encounter to properly open up. To this end, Oli McBurnie went close with header just a few yards out which lacked the required power and Blades’ boss Chris Wilder sent on Billy Sharp for Lys Mousset to partner the bullish Scotland international.
In response, Arsenal pressed sporadically but were somewhat wayward. Pepe’s crossing had a habit of going needlessly awry from tempting positions with the majority of the 60.310 crowd awaiting the Gunners to take full and sustained flight.
Arsenal talisman Pepe was involved again in the penalty area, but VAR confirmed referee Mike Dean’s original decision not to award a spot kick in 66 minutes, after the Ivorian tumbled a bit easily at the feet of Jack O’Connell.
To their credit, the Gunners, in their attempts to grab a second goal, had a more driven, intense air about them. Lacazetter curled a free kick just over the crossbar before Arteta opted to replace him with Eddie Nketiah - recalled from a loan spell at Leeds United - who received fair acclaim from the rank-and-file.
Although Arsenal were attempting, admirably, to put the game to bed, the visitors seldom seemed capable of applying any incision on rare attempts going forward in the latter stages.
That was, until the dramric leveller by Fleck. The Scot had experienced a quiet day up until his moment. A left footed shot from approximately 12 yards out, which, although lacking might, had enough direction to outwit Bernd Leno in the Arsenal goal to send the visiting supporters from Yorkshire wild.
The Blades deserved their point for characteristically supreme organisation – Arsenal, on the other hand, have their own questions to address.
Arsenal: Leno, Saka, Mustafi, Luiz, Maitland-Niles, Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Martinelli, Pepe, Lacazette (Nketiah 74)