No defence for spineless Arsenal as Gunners' predictable fragility leaves questions of Emery
In over a year at the club, it's difficult to see what impact Unai Emery has actually had on Arsenal.
Even before kick-off at Bramall Lane, there was a certain aura around the contest that had Arsenal's struggles on Monday looking entirely predictable.
Firstly, the Gunners' record in Sheffield – for what it matters – is woeful in the Premier League, having won just once against United or Wednesday and losing six.
While the Blades' pre-match position of 15th was hardly anything to be impressed by, they have been lauded for their defensive solidity, conceding the joint-fewest goals in the division with Liverpool.
If there was a team you could see a mentally fragile Arsenal struggling against in a game many would ordinarily expect them to win, it was the Blades.
GETTTT INNNNNNNN!!!!!!!— Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) October 21, 2019
THE BLADES HAVE DEFEATED ARSENAL! pic.twitter.com/lvnIsM5roF
The Gunners' display was reassuringly typical.
Much of the build-up play was easy on the eye, yet they were sorely lacking killer instinct and once again appeared feeble at the back. On top of that, it remains a mystery as to what Emery's plan is.
Nicolas Pepe's performance was his Arsenal career in a microcosm. The Ivory Coast international showed some nice flashes and, in fairness, was arguably the visitors' most creative player, delivering 12 crosses – five of them accurate – and crafting a glorious chance for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
But then came the moment of horror. With Sead Kolasinac's low cross played right across the face of goal, Pepe was there to tap in from about two yards out, only he barely touched the ball and he was left with his head in his hands.
United capitalised and exploited Arsenal's defensive frailty with 30 minutes on the clock. Oliver Norwood's corner found Jack O'Connell unmarked at the back post and his header was diverted home by the similarly unattended Lys Mousset in the middle of the six-yard box.
It was the 22nd goal Arsenal have conceded from a set-piece in the Premier League since the start of last season, the third worst after Everton (24) and Watford (25).
As such, Arsenal have now kept just two clean sheets in their past 14 league games.
They were the dominant force after the interval, spending much of it in the Blades' half, but it was still unclear how they planned to find a way through.
Dani Ceballos' introduction at least saw a competent ball-player enter the fray, though he didn't offer much drive or incisiveness, rather spending most of his time spraying long-range passes out to the right flank.
It's the same old story; Arsenal possess talent but lack character.
Even in Arsene Wenger's latter days one could see an identity, but now that's less clear. Emery's general system resembles that of a counter-attacking team, though most weeks they look almost unrecognisable to the last.
Of course, part of that comes down to the players being used, but at the same time that suggests Emery regularly squeezes players into roles they aren't suitable for.
As their desperation grew on Monday, Arsenal's plan B seemed to be based on hooking hopeful balls into the penalty area and that never looked like working against this Sheffield United defence.
Arsenal's lack of inspiration and ingenuity meant defeat was entirely deserved, but most alarming is how predictable their gutless performance was. It was entirely in keeping with their away record under Emery, having won just eight of 24 Premier League games on the road since he took over, recording two clean sheets.
Until Emery fixes that spinlessness, he is doomed to leave Arsenal having changed nothing.
22 - Arsenal have conceded 22 Premier League goals from set-pieces since the start of last season; only Watford (25) and Everton (24) have conceded more. Weakness. pic.twitter.com/5k0jVkbUZJ— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 21, 2019