There was plenty to like about the way Arsenal took a stubborn Sheffield United side apart on Sunday, not least the way they adapted to a series of injuries to key players.
Like many, I was fearful in the build-up to the game that the absences of Kierney Tierney, Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe, and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang would leave us fitful and struggling to get the ball forward against a side set up to make life difficult.
Missing one or two key players would be difficult for any side but four of our best felt like a big blow. I could well imagine a return to the sort of turgid football we witnessed last autumn, a period in time I’ve since tried to erase from my memory (without success).
Credit to the manager and team, then, that they played some excellent attacking football and showed few signs of missing the players who have been so important to us over these last two or three months.
Of course, our hosts are bottom of the Premier League table for a good reason but it’s not as if Burnley were pulling up trees when they turned us over at the Emirates in December, is it?
The Blades needed beating and a beating they were handed. It’s unlikely to do much for our season, I concede, but it is a good start to a run of games that are important for the manager and the squad – a run of games in which we should be looking to score lots of points. Indeed, it’s not impossible with a few strokes of luck and a following wind that we could take maximum points from the games that remain – and what a finish to the season that would be.
The focus for the campaign remains progression in the Europa League and we must be fully switched-on for the second leg in the Czech Republic next week but this was a fine way to warm up for that clash.
If there were lessons to be learned, it’s that Gabriel Martinelli adds no small amount of energy and intent to our left-hand side. He still has to be mindful of supporting his left-back and choosing where and when is best to go chasing the ball to maximise his energy but he was as effective on our left as anyone has been this season. He should absolutely be in contention for a starting berth on Thursday.
So too should Nicolas Pepe – although his inclusion is a little less certain. Whatever we all feel about the Ivorian – and I have been among his most ardent supporters – he makes things happen, even if it’s not a goal or an assist. It was his run and shot, after all, that led to Martinelli’s goal and he was lively throughout. If Bukayo Saka is unavailable are tasked with filling in at left-back, Pepe should be next in line for the right-wing berth.
It was pleasing also to see Alex Lacazette to add another two goals to his tally for the season, which is fast approaching his best campaign in an Arsenal shirt. He has taken a lot of stick from fans over the last few years but he remains an excellent finisher and a man willing to run miles for the team when required. Wherever his future lies, what he can contribute to the remainder of this campaign should not be dismissed or overlooked.
Attention will now begin to turn to Thursday and patching up the players we hope will get us over the line and into the next round. Even with this win under our belts, I can’t say I am especially confident we can go to Prague and get the job done because it always feels like we are playing football and juggling venomous snakes at the same time.
If we were looking for a competent, calamity-free performance to set us on our way, however, Sheffield United was certainly that. Onwards and upwards.