Arsenal’s rout over Sheffield United shows winnable games are becoming routine

SHEFFIELD, England — There was a time when Arsenal struggled to justify favouritism on nights like this, but it is a measure of their transformation under manager Mikel Arteta that Sheffield United were cowering in fear before kick-off. Empty seats were dotted around Bramall Lane at kick-off with many home fans presumably fearing the worst after a torrid campaign to date. They weren’t wrong.

Within 15 minutes, Martin Ødegaard, a Jayden Bogle own goal, and Gabriel Martinelli had put the visitors 3-0 up and some home fans headed for the exits. More left on 25 minutes when Kai Havertz fired in a fourth. Declan Rice’s fifth on 39 minutes was the cue for further departures.

Blades boss Chris Wilder wrote in his programme notes before this about how his team may have to “suffer without the ball” on Monday night and he was correct, although not in the way he planned.

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Sheffield United became the first top-flight team to concede five or more goals in three consecutive home games and any appreciation of Arsenal must come with the caveat that Wilder’s team are well on course to become the most porous team in Premier League history. It is no exaggeration to say the first half was an abject humiliation of a team overwhelmingly likely to be relegated.

“We didn’t have an answer to anything they had,” said Wilder. So much so, in fact, that it was as if they didn’t even understand the question.

No top-flight side has ever conceded five or more goals in three consecutive home games. And it didn’t stop there. Ben White added a sixth with a smart left-foot drive just before the hour mark as Arsenal became the first team in English football history to win three consecutive away games by five or more goals. That run includes thrashing bottom club Burnley and extends a ruthlessness against lesser opposition which is a trait Arteta has instilled in this side.

“This is the Premier League so you know the level of the opponent,” he said. “You cannot be satisfied. When it comes internally from them and that level of demand, it is what I see every day in training. They are pushing each other and trying to make each other better. That chemistry is really important if we want to have the chance to achieve what we want.

“We were really aggressive and positive and we showed real quality in the final third to take the game into a great position for us. Then we maintained the rhythm, maintained the hunger and I love that about the team.”

Remember the days when a familiar trope was whether Arsenal (among other clubs) “could do it on a rainy night at Stoke?” The suggestion was that the Gunners could often prove an unusually soft touch against teams inferior on paper.

It was an affliction that badly undermined Arsene Wenger’s latter years in charge and Arsenal served up a more recent example of that fragility on this ground four years ago when Sheffield United won 1-0 in October 2019. Then Gunners boss Unai Emery was sacked a month later.

Before Monday, Arsenal had a 14-0-1 record against newly-promoted opponents in their last 15 matches. Their record in the previous 15 such games was 7-4-4. Arteta inherited a team capable of finding a banana skin on a barren road. Now they are ruthless against weaker opposition: he has won 19 of his 25 matches against newly-promoted sides.

Contributing to this shift may be the widening gap between Premier League and EFL Championship quality, but that is a debate for another day. In any case, Arsenal habitually struggled to translate that apparent superiority to the scoreline in years gone by, not necessarily exclusively against newly-promoted sides but away from home against teams they were expected to beat.

The end result here is another night when the goal difference needle moves notably in their favour. With a +45 goal difference, they have the same figure they finished last season with already. And significantly, it is six better than leaders Liverpool and ten ahead of Manchester City.

In what could prove a tight race of fine margins, it is a notable advantage. “The fact we are scoring so many goals and not conceding is a great sign,” said Arteta. “But it’s about winning every game now and that is the demands that those two clubs [Liverpool and City] have put over [other teams] in the last six or seven years. That is the task ahead of us.”

Arsenal were so comfortable that Bukayo Saka was withdrawn at half-time due to mild sickness, Fabio Vieira made his first appearance since November following groin surgery before Thomas Partey featured for the first time since October after persistent hamstring trouble. And to complete a notable hat trick, Gabriel Jesus also came on for his first outing since Jan. 30 following a knee problem.

There was one note of caution as Martinelli limped off with the aid of two team physios attempting to keep the weight off his right foot due to a cut, but this was nevertheless an overwhelmingly positive night for Arteta who has repeatedly stated the importance of having as close to a fully fit squad as possible after missing William Saliba so badly during last year’s run-in.

“[We are trying to] improve every player and the mechanisms and the culture around the team,” said Arteta. “They are doing that but it’s still the most important part of the season ahead that’s for sure.”

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