The Gunners almost found themselves needing extra-time after Sead Kolašinac’s scuffed clearance ricocheted off his own man and fell into the path of David McGoldrick in the 87th minute.
The Blades striker who has struggled to find the net, put past Arsenal goalkeeper Emi Martínez to level proceedings, before Ceballos scored a late clincher.
Kolašinac had started the game in something of an unfamiliar role, as a left-sided centre-back in a back three comprised of the Bosnian himself, David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi. Accompanying Kolašinac on the left was left wing-back Kieran Tierney who predominantly hugged the touchline for much of the game.
The left-sided duo struggled ever so slightly with frequent bombardments into the box, courtesy of Jack Robinson’s long, flat throws. Despite Oli McBurnie’s aerial prowess, Arsenal weathered the storm, although it did raise questions about Kolašinac’s central suitability given how he struggled against the Scot in the air.
On the ground, Kolašinac fared much better which was to be expected given his well-set build. Only Ainsley Maitland-Niles and in a dynamic right wing-back role completed more tackles for Arsenal than the makeshift centre-back.
Positionally, Kolašinac was typically more advanced than Mustafi on the other side, with Arsenal’s formation in possession often appearing as a 2-3-4-1. With Tierney pushed on and progressing play well down the left, it gave license for Bukayo Saka – starting in yet another role – to tuck inside and link play from between Sheffield United’s lines.
Saka was useful to bounce wall-passes off and tried to make combinations with Tierney down the left-hand side. In taking up central positions out of possession, he was rarely picked up and received often from Kolašinac and Tierney.
Mikel Arteta’s thinking behind Kolašinac at centre-back made sense in theory; a stocky, brutish player capable of supporting a more athletic duo on his side of the pitch in Tierney and Saka. However, in practice, Kolašinac was perhaps a little short of the requisite skillset to routinely play in that role.
Against a team with more dynamic midfield runners, Kolašinac would likely have been caught out due to his positioning.
As for Saka, undertaking a similar role to his posting in the 2-1 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion, his combination play down the left with Tierney should encourage both Arteta and Arsenal supporters
His freer, more central role facilitated Tierney being able to open his legs down the entirety of the left-hand side of the pitch, and in a game where Arsenal were under pressure for large periods, for the Scot to have attempted five open play crosses suggests something clicked between the young pair.
Nevertheless, Arsenal are in the FA Cup semi-final and may have stumbled on a way of playing that could soften the blow if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang departs this summer. It may need polishing, as will Kolašinac’s suitability in such a role, and it will almost certainly require Saka, but the early signs were positive.
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It was to be Saka’s decoy central run that would scramble the Blades’ defence for Dani Ceballos’ winner. As Arsenal broke forward, in a move that originated with the teenage sensation, Saka counter-intuitively made a run towards the back post, allowing Ceballos to overlap Pépé and pick his spot at Dean Henderson’s near post.
In a new-look left-hand side, Arsenal were unconvincing at times defensively, but going forward Tierney and Saka seemed to work in tandem rather nicely.