It’s difficult to know how to feel about Sunday’s trip to Sheffield United. It feels like a sideshow, a distraction from other more important matters.
I’m talking, of course, about next Thursday’s trip to the Czech Republic for the second-leg of our Europa League tie, a match that carries such overwhelming significance for our season that it’s near impossible to look past it.
By comparison, a Sunday evening visit to Sheffield feels like little more than an inconvenience, of little consequence for both sides and carrying the risk of injury to players we can’t afford to lose.
And yet, despite all that, there remains in our Premier League season an opportunity. So many of us have started to wonder where this side is going and how it is developing. So many of us have searched for a sense of identity or consistency in this side, something that we can hold on to say ‘yes, that’s Arsenal’.
If nothing else, the run of fixtures we have between now and the end of the season could provide us with some of those answers. After a distinctly horrible run since the beginning of February, we face an end to the season that, by most objective measures, you could describe as favourable. Of the teams we have still to play, only a trip to Chelsea later this month could be described as daunting.
The rest, matches against Newcastle, West Brom, Everton, Brighton, Crystal Palace, and Fulham, are eminently winnable. In fact, if we want to be certain that this team really is capable of more than what we have seen at times this season, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect six wins from those fixtures.
But we have to start that run in the right way and, as difficult as it may be, we have to find a way to dust ourselves down and get motivated for Sunday. For all their struggles this season, United don’t really have anything left to lose and a team without fear can make for a dangerous opponent.
Of course, a team with nothing to lose can also make for a reckless opponent but, in the ultra-professional football of today, we’re unlikely to see a team ‘already on the beach’ as it used to be. Players now and better motivated, coached and incentivised and Sheffield, with or without their manager, will be no different.
That proved themselves an awkward and uncompromising opponent earlier this season at the Emirates and I doubt we can expect anything to have changed since. Frankly, those are qualities we could well do without them demonstrating given our current struggles in building-up to goal and, indeed, putting the ball in the back of the net.
Given the hosts’s preference for a more physical and direct style, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pablo Mari and Callum Chambers return to the back line but, as for the rest of the team, I’m not sure we’ll see too much change, even with bigger fish to fry next week.
The only point of question for me remains over the left-back position. Will Mikel Arteta persist with Cedric Soares, whose lamentable right-footedness contributed to Prague’s equaliser on Thursday, or does he move the left-footed Bukayo Saka back there?
Personally, given Nicolas Pepe’s good form, I’d be all for including both he and Saka in the same side but the real question comes down to whether Saka is capable of standing up to the physical and aerial test he will be subjected to by the Blades?
On the face of it, a Sunday evening fixture away from home is something we could probably do without at this juncture but, in the grander scheme of things, this is the start of an important run of league fixtures for the Gunners that might just help focus a few minds and build a little momentum heading into the summer. If nothing else, we could all do with a good win.