LONDON — As a neutral turning up for an Arsenal game, there’s little that picks up the pulse like seeing a central defensive partnership of David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi on the hosts’ team sheet. After all, it’s a pretty decent sign that 90 minutes of high-octane entertainment awaits you. While there may not be a lot of quality football coming up, there is likely to be some chaos.
The phrase “they have a mistake in them” has rarely been more appropriate, but while it is very good for Arsenal to think of us, the humble observers, this is not the biggest winning strategy. It took seven minutes of their 1-1 draw against Sheffield United on Saturday for the “Mustafi-Luiz Experience” to deliver their first instalment of entertainment, the German double-dep giving the ball away in its own zone after a few significant procrastination.
An afternoon of high stuffing was on the menu. Alas, from this authentic slapstick point was disappointing absent, but Arsenal produced some moments of poor more prosaic defence to provide moments of despair for their fans and worry for Mikel Arteta, especially in that their back line conceded in the last 10 minutes to cancel out 80-plus minutes of hard work.
Sheffield United dominated the first exchanges and really should have taken the lead, especially after Lys Mousset was gifted a couple of free headers in the first 20 minutes. Later in the game, Oliver McBurnie was also left to his own devices and really should have given the visitors a goal before they eventually equalised through John Fleck. It was a more unobtrusive defensive release than we might have expected, but it could have been just as damaging to Arsenal’s prospects. After all, Saturday’s draw leaves them only seven points above the relegation zone, a whopping 10 points less than the top four and, for the prospect of being, 32 points behind league leaders Liverpool.
Meanwhile, the late goal was just a reward for a side of hard-working blades that sit seventh in their first season since promotion. For all their excellence in 2019-20, scoring goals has not been Sheffield United’s greatest strength: they have 25 in 23 games, beaten by Aston Villa in the relegation zone and helped by the other teams below in the table. It is a backdoor way of saying that a more powerful team would surely have punished the Mustafi-Luiz axis more ruthlessly.
Maybe we can’t be too Luiz and Mustafi in the end. In addition to their own performances, they had Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka play on either side of them: both are good players, but both are young and unnatural defenders. They also played together in only one league game this season, when they conceded twice at the bottom of the Norwich table a few weeks ago, the Canaries’ goals coming as a result of standing aside and watching as first Teemu Pukki then Todd C antwell pulled home from the edge of the box. They haven’t had much time to develop a partnership or understanding, but then again, you could say that there is a good reason why two potential agents of defensive chaos have not been paired more with this term.
With all this in mind, it makes Arsenal’s stated interest in PSG left-back Layvin Kurzawa even stranger: Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac may be injured, but Saka has done a pretty reasonable job filling in this side. Signing another left-back will not only block the path of a promising youngster, but also divert attention from a position where they really need upgrade. All of this is obviously easier said than done, and Arsenal are working with more modest resources these days. Maybe they’re just waiting for William Saliba to arrive in the summer, but it would be an important gamble to count on a 19-year-old with 24 senior appearances to his name and who has been injured since November.
Interestingly, the post-match speech of the two managers was of an Arsenal team profligate in attack, a team that really should have put the game to bed before Fleck with seven minutes remaining equalizer.
“I’m very disappointed,” Arteta said after the game. “I think the performance deserved three points. If you don’t put the game away… in the Premier League, if you are 1-0 in the last 10-15 minutes, be careful because anything can happen.”
Chris Wilder was on the same wavelength. “I didn’t think we were near our best level today. I do not know how much that has been done to not be put to bed by the opposition. When teams don’t put you to bed, you have an opportunity.
Despite their consensus, it was Arsenal’s attack that could have given the fans the most hope inside the Emirates. Gabriel Martinelli continued his very impressive career with a very passable pierre-Emerick Aubameyang impression, scoring the opening goal by having the striker crack to be in the right place at the right time. Aubameyang, serving the first game of a three-game suspension after his red card against Crystal Palace last weekend, tweeted his appreciation from the stands.
“He’s 18 years old with all the enthusiasm,” Arteta said, “but also he’s so brave to make decisions. All the time, he’s in the middle of the goal waiting for the opportunity to come.
In addition to Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah was greeted with enormous enthusiasm when he came off the bench, the kind of enthusiasm, in fact, usually reserved for new signings. The striker was recalled from his loan to Leeds with the initial intention of firing him, but as Arteta said, “circumstances have changed,” and he will now stay around. Yet the work of their existing battery of attackers will always be undermined if they are so vulnerable at the back. Perhaps this is part of a larger problem, a more psychological malaise that has for some time hung over Arsenal like a grey cloud of boredom; It will take more than a transfer window to solve this problem.
As long as Mustafi and Luiz are the men Arsenal rely on for solidity and order in defence, the Arteta revolution will offer little more than entertainment for the rest of us.