“We can accept where we are and roll over and hope the season finishes or keep fighting and try to improve,” said manager Paul Heckingbottom defiantly after the match but you wondered if, once Arsenal went in front, some Blades players did not take the first option.
You never quite know what you will get with Mikel Arteta’s side. Once it was clear the Blades were up against the good version the outcome was inevitable.
As Heckingbottom pointed out: “It’s a ruthless league. Just as I thought we had our strongest moment we gave away a second goal.”
Three-nil was the final score, because that was as many as the Gunners settled for.
It leaves the Blades 18 points from Premier League safety with 21 still to play for, though that gap could have been widened by the next time they take to the field. Due to a clash with the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, we do not know when that will be.
Oli McBurnie was brought on in the second half to inject a bit more zest but within 20 minutes he had gone off injured, and by the time Heckingbottom was speaking to the media, he was on his way to have his foot X-rayed.
There was no point asking Heckingbottom what he thought about his team’s efforts, as he tacitly acknowledged.
“One thing I did say to the players is we’re only going to criticise each other in there (the dressing room),” he said. “We know when standards slip and when things are right and wrong and we have to identify and speak about it but I’m not going to criticise them out here.”
Arsenal do not like coming to Sheffield and a cold night with a little snow in the air seemed a good time to test the softness of the southerners. The Blades’ victory over them on a cold November evening last season really moved their campaign through the gears. Nights like that, in the days when you could stand within two metres of someone without getting a funny look and actually wearing a mask in the bank would have you frowned upon, feel such a long time ago.
This time Arsenal were far and away better than the Blades.
In fairness, Heckingbottom’s side started with a bit of verve. The recalled Oli Burke was hungry in the press and his team passed at a good tempo. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale passed short when it was on, but showed good selection to drill balls into the centre-forwards when it was not.
But as Heckingbottom said, “We had a lot of the ball in our half of the pitch.”
David McGoldrick put their first shot wide after 10 minutes, finishing off a move which started at Ramsdale’s feet.
The problem was Arsenal started well too, and man for man, they have far better players than the doomed United. The Blades quickly faded, their belief evaporating
As the pressure mounted, Oliver Norwood blocked a Thomas Partey shot, then intercepted a ball in from Callum Chambers buthit his clearance against Bukayo Saka, surprisingly selected in the hole with Granit Xhaka at left-back. The latter was never tested. Ramsdale got lucky midway through the first half, hammering a clearance into Alexandre Lacazette only for the ball to bounce back straight into his arms.
Two minutes later a Ben Osborn pass was cut out by Dani Ceballos, whose backheel decorated a the build-up to a move which ended with Gabriel Martinelli rippling the side netting. Ramsdale reacted well when a shot from the winger deflected off Norwood and Enda Stevens blocked a goalbound effort from Chambers.
A minute later, the damn burst. Arsenal’s football was lovely and again Ceballos’s heel played an important part, putting Lacazette in to sweep beyond Ramsdale.
The half-time interval checked the Gunners’ momentum and the Blades changed shape to a midfield diamond with Osborn in the hole, but neither decisively changed the balance of power.
“We might have had eight or nine shots but probably three good chances and not ones where we really worked the keeper,” commented the interim manager.
“We had ones where we should have.” In the 72nd minute Arsenal took, or rather were given, a second goal.
John Lundstram, whose presence in this team is infuriating fans having long since decided to run his contract down, gave the ball sloppily to Pepe. Ramsdale’s save only presented Martinelli with a deserved tap-in.
A straight pass from Partey allowed Lacazette to score a routine third before taking the last few minutes off.
They played the second half with sensible conservatism ahead of a difficult Europa League trip to Prague, and the Blades were unable to make them have to hit the heights of the first 45 minutes.
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