Bramall Lane shook and Arsenal were rattled and then rolled over as Sheffield United’s French striker Lys Mousset first-half goal was enough to claim all three points.
Arsenal knew what to expect, they knew what was coming from Sheffield United but they ultimately could not cope with it on a Monday night in Yorkshire as they slumped to the kind of familiar defeat that has their fans despairing at whether they really are making progress.
This was a famous victory for Chris Wilder’s side on their return to the Premier League as they moved into the top half of the table and deservedly so. Nothing should detract from that as they showed the strength, the desire and the heart to overcome a far better-resourced team with Champions League ambitions.
They are also such a committed, attractive side to watch with their bold tactics and positivity. For Arsenal, though, this will lead to more soul-searching and a questioning of whether some of their players share the same qualities as their opponents: namely that desire. Arsenal will argue that decisions went against them but this was not good enough.
At the earning of Sheffield United’s first corner Unai Emery shook his fist at his team, imploring them to stay strong. It proved prophetic. It proved to be in vain. In fact the home side won a succession of corners and, finally, just before the half-hour mark they made one of them count. And Arsenal were far from strong as the ball from Ollie Norwood was allowed to reach Jack O’Connell unmarked and beyond the far post and he simply headed it back across goal for Lys Mousset to turn into the net from close-range.
It was Mousset’s first start and yet again Arsenal had been undone at a set-piece and it fired up the atmosphere even further. The Sheffield United fans were up for this; they scented fragility around Arsenal and the visitors were rattled.
Soon after and there were two penalty controversies. Firstly George Baldock appeared to be fouled by Sead Kolasinac but play was waved on by referee Mike Dean. Then Arsenal broke and claimed that Bukayo Saka was impeded by John Egan when it was clear the young winger had, unfortunately, dived. He was booked. As Arsenal raged Dean ran over to the touchline to also caution first-team coach Freddie Ljungberg who had led the protests.
Before that there had been yet more controversy – and a poor, poor miss by Nicolas Pepe. Arsenal won a corner and Sokratis had his shirt pulled by Egan. The Arsenal defender threw his arms in the air, for effect, as he was challenged and neither Dean nor the VAR felt moved presumably deeming he had over-exaggerated. But Egan was fortunate.
The crowd remained up. Every surge forward by Sheffield United was cheered, every mis-step from Arsenal raucously approved although the home side were again a little lucky when John Fleck slid in late to catch Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the ankle and escaped with only a caution.
There was another touch of fortune. Pepe’s quick feet initiated a slick Arsenal counter-attack which ended with Joe Willock sending the ball wide for Kolasinac’s to cross low. Pepe met it, unmarked and close to goal, but his touch was poor and the ball cleared Dean Henderson’s far post. Pepe had to score but ended up in the net himself rather than sending the ball there.
It was not quite on the same scale of ‘sitter’ but Sheffield United had also spurned a chance. O’Connell – who appeared the most attacking of their famed over-lapping centre-backs – crossed and Mousset made a mess of trying to flick the ball goalwards to actually send it in the opposite direction. But he redeemed himself with his goal.
Finally Arsenal rallied with, as injury-time was announced, Granit Xhaka testing Henderson with a powerful half-volley from 25 yards which the goalkeeper did well to turn away.
The advantage was well-deserved for Sheffield United. Arsenal were flat, passive, opening themselves up to accusations that they were – again – lacking something and needed a dramatic improvement and it was tasked to Dani Ceballos to kick-start it as he replaced Willock.
There was certainly more purpose with Sheffield United pinned back and the anxiety levels rising until Mousset was fouled and earned them so respite.
The forward could have earned even more as he was picked out in the Arsenal area but his control was poor and he handled the ball. It was his last involvement as he was replaced by Billy Sharp with Sheffield United desperate for more of an attacking outlet and a sight of goal which came when George Baldock slashed a shot wide before, at the other end, Ceballos mistimed a volley from Saka’s cross and Henderson easily saved. Sheffield United responded with Fleck driving a powerful shot into the side-netting and it continued to ebb and flow.
Emery gambled. On came Alexander Lacazette and off went a midfielder, Xhaka. He had to try and rescue this with Henderson claiming a Pepe free-kick and then the forward sending another effort over. They pushed on with Kolasinac meeting a cross only to head wastefully over with Emery finally showing his frustration.
Moments later, as Arsenal needlessly conceded a corner, Emery sat on one of the advertising hoardings and his exasperated pose said it all as the clock ticked. There were five minutes of added time. The noise levels rose as the home fans their tiring team needed to support to get over the line. But they did just that to a raucous reaction.