TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) gives us the lowdown on Monday Night Football's match-up between Sheffield United and Arsenal.
Sheffield United v Arsenal | Monday 21st October 2019, 20:00 | Sky Sports
Sheffield United host Arsenal at Bramall Lane on Monday night as they search for their first home win since beating Crystal Palace back in August. Sat 13th on nine points, the Blades’ games have represented tight affairs, with only seven goals for and seven goals against to show in their eight encounters.
Arsenal sit third on 15 points, with only one defeat this season, and that was away at table-toppers Liverpool. Unai Emery is managing to juggle European football and Premier League duties well so far, and will need to continue doing so as a hectic period approaches.
Sheffield United have Oli McBurnie, David McGoldrick and John Fleck all undergoing late fitness tests, whilst Reiss Nelson is expected to miss out for Arsenal. However, striker Alexandre Lacazette could return for the visitors, which would offer them a boost up top.
Blades’ overlapping centre-halves
Lining up 3-5-2, Wilder’s use of overlapping centre backs has been revered since it helped bring Premier League football to Bramall Lane. It has had required results defensively, only conceding seven goals, although they have been overperforming their Expected Goals (xG) against count which sits at 1.5.
The issue for Sheffield United has been scoring goals, and in particular taking the opportunities they are presented with. Wasteful against Liverpool and Watford, they have drawn blanks in their last two games, and will need to be more clinical if they are to get anything against Arsenal on Monday night.
Wilder’s side look to utilise the flanks, in particular with wing backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock providing the width. The centre halves are given the license to push on and support these players, and create overloads inside opposition full backs, whilst the central midfielders also look to drift out wide to provide support to the wing backs.
With the centre halves given the license to join attacks, the Sheffield United midfield need good defensive awareness of when to attack and defend, and have so far shown the correct discipline, particularly against Liverpool.
Coming up against an Arsenal defence with wingers whose defensive work is at times questionable, it could lead to an open game, particularly through the usage of the flanks from both sides.
Norwood key to setting the tempo
Oliver Norwood sits centrally alongside John Fleck and John Lundstram, looking to dictate the tempo and passing for United, and has been very impressive in doing so far. Starting every game this season, he contributes well both attacking and defensively.
Averaging 2.5 tackles and 1.5 interceptions, Norwood has to cover a lot of ground in the middle, whilst his passing stats are also impressive. Averaging 2.1 key passes per-game, as well as 57 passes, he is integral to the ball retention, as well as creative output from the base of the midfield.
Norwood is able to pick out long passes to utilise the onrushing wing backs, completing 8.9 long balls, and United will look to utilise this to create overloads down Arsenal’s flanks, particularly if they line up with four at the back.
Closing down Norwood and stopping his supply will be integral to the chances Arsenal have of winning the game, and if they are able to do so will go a long way to securing victory.
Sheffield United are also not afraid to play direct football, with the aerial threat of David McGoldrick and Oli McBurnie up front, one lining up alongside the industrious Callum Robinson. They look to pick up the second balls, and with Fleck and Lundstram expected to link the play in behind doing so, Arsenal will need Granit Xhaka and co to be on top form.
Arsenal will need to be strong defensively
If Arsenal stop these second balls and isolate McBurnie, it does remove a large threat. McBurnie however will fancy his chances, particularly against David Luiz in the air, and could even be tempted to move out wide as a wide target man to win the first header, thus isolating the smaller Arsenal full backs.
Sokratis will look to play up with McBurnie, given his 3.1 aerials per-game, but worryingly for Arsenal, no other defender is winning above Luiz’s 1.3, and this will make them susceptible.
Given that Sheffield United look to attack wide and provide a lot of crosses into the box, it makes them a further threat, and as a result the direct nature of Sheffield United should cause them problems.
Emery has a tendency to spring a tactical surprise, but if Arsenal are to line up as expected with four at the back, it creates an interesting tactical battle out wide. It is hard to predict who the Spaniard will opt for at full back, however they will expected to fulfil the same role regardless.
Gunners threat from the flanks
The full-backs look to provide width for the wingers and allow them to drift inside and isolate the opposition centre halves when playing against three at the back, and Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka will relish this. The make-up of the midfield behind is also up for debate, but it is expected to be Mattero Guendouzi and Xhaka, plus one more, and as a result much of the creativity remains out wide.
Despite a patchy start, Pepe has an individual xG of 2.24 and is completing 3.1 dribbles and 1.5 key passes, showing that if he is able to gain some confidence, the underlying numbers suggest his form should quickly pick up.
Saka been a revelation last few games and should cause problems from the other wing. With Aubameyang leading the line, Arsenal won’t look to compete in aerial battles, but will have more than enough attacking fire power in that three to cause the Sheffield United backline problems.
One area of vulnerability highlighted in Sheffield United’s defence in the 2-2 draw at Chelsea was when they get overloaded out wide through quick attacking. Arsenal possess a side able to do the same, as touched upon with Saka and Pepe out wide, with Aubameyang able to run the channels effectively as well.
Arsenal also look to create 2v1s out wide with their full backs, who will look to get in behind the spaces left by Sheffield United’s back three. It is up in the air as to who Emery will select at full back, however Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney represent upgrades on the current available full backs, and if selected would have a huge impact on the game.
Both possess immense energy and pace up and down the line, and would contribute a long way to nullifying the threat of Sheffield United’s wing backs.
They are also vulnerable when dribbled at, as showcased by Moussa Djenepo’s goal in Southampton’s 1-0 win and in Pepe, Arsenal have the perfect player to exploit this. Sheffield United also showed their vulnerability to pace on the break against Watford, and when losing the ball out of shape, Arsenal’s front three possess the pace and cutting edge to make them pay if this is the case.
The three will all fancy their chances in a foot race against the Sheffield United backline, and could be another way Arsenal look to break down the Blades’ defence.
Mike Dean in the middle
It is worth noting that card happy Mike Dean is refereeing this game, and with an average of 4.40 cards per-game, there is sure to be some value out there. Lundstram (9/2 SkyBet) leads the way with three yellow cards for Sheffield United, as he is given the role to break up play in the midfield.
Arsenal have picked up 20 yellows and one red in their games this season, as they open attacking football often leaves them exposed, particularly to counter attacks. Granit Xhaka is unsurprisingly leading the way with four yellows in seven games this season, and is priced at 9/4 (Bet365), which is a surprisingly longer priced than first expected.
The betting angles
Despite Sheffield United’s games currently lacking goals, there are underlying statistics to suggest they are doing enough to create chances. They are massively underperforming their xG from both open play (7.93 to five goals scored) and set-pieces (3.5 to two goals scored), and coming up against an Arsenal defence which has shown its fragility, they should be afforded chances once again.
The aerial threat and the set-piece ability from Norwood means that United should threaten from both crosses and set pieces, however priced at 8/11 (William Hill), a header to be scored feels too tight to get behind.
Arsenal look well priced at 10/11 to win, however there are still concerns over their fragile defence, so I believe the better value lies in Aubemeyang as an Anytime goalscorer.
With Pepe and Saka well suited to causing the Sheffield United backline problems, they should be able to create enough opportunities for the Gabonese striker, who has four goals in five away games this season. Best priced at 1/1 (SkyBet), it takes away the risk on Arsenal’s defence, coming up against an attack more than capable of creating chances.
On the card markets, one standout option is Norwood in Sheffield United’s midfield. Although only booked once this season, he was carded 11 times last season, and is susceptible to the quick attacks from other sides, particularly those with midfielders who look to drive on the ball.
As Arsenal look to transition and break quickly, he could be left open, and has been dribbled past on average 2.1 times per-game this season. If required to make a cynical foul, Dean is very card-happy, so as a result 7/2 (Bet365) looks good value.