Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Arsenal 1-0 Leeds – The hairdryer treatment

It had been nearly eight years to the day since Arsenal and Leeds last faced off in the FA Cup. That game at the Emirates would be remembered as providing one of the most iconic moments of the decade for Gooners across the world.

“Henry… chance… GOAL! He may be cast in bronze, but he’s still capable of producing truly golden moments!”

Words that will be etched into the hearts of Arsenal fans for many years to come. The return of the king, Arsenal’s top goalscorer in their illustrious 133-year history, it was only appropriate that Thierry Henry would be the one to send Arsenal through. Fittingly enough, another former Arsenal player who starred in that memorable fixture would be involved again this time around.

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal would come into this game brimming with confidence after their hugely impressive 2-0 victory over Manchester United, and the Spaniard fielded a particularly strong outfit for this tie. Nicolas Pepe, Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette all started the game, with Rob Holding also returning in the centre of defence for the Gunners. A proper statement of intent from Arteta, who is clearly aware of Arsenal’s history and passion for this tournament, having won it twice himself under Arsene Wenger.

In contrast, Marcelo Bielsa handed debuts to two young Leeds players in Robbie Gotts and ‘keeper Illan Meslier, as his side continue to push for a return to the top flight. And if the first half was anything to go by, they’ll fit right in with the big boys.

Arsenal were all over the place

To say that Arsenal were all over the place would be a significant understatement. Misplaced passes, several arguments amongst players, and a total inability to deal with Leeds’ high press and fast passing characterised their first half. Many Gooners were excited to see Holding back in the starting line-up, myself being one of them, but he endured a torrid opening 45. Coming back from a long lay-off is always going to be a challenge for any player, but I don’t think he’s really been the same since that injury against United last season. Hopefully Arteta can bring the best out of him as the season progresses.

The only player who did himself any justice in that half was Emi Martinez. The Argentinian goalie has been used exclusively in cup and Europa League fixtures this season, and was called into action on several occasions to preserve his clean sheet. Leeds’ best chance saw Patrick Bamford cannon the ball off the crossbar; they did everything right except put the ball in the back of the net.

On the rare occasions that Arsenal’s attackers found themselves in Leeds’ final third, the move would break down due to a poor final ball or by simply dribbling into trouble. The half-time whistle couldn’t come quick enough for Arsenal fans, a few of whom booed the team off the pitch as they mooched down the tunnel.

How one would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the Arsenal dressing room at half time; the Gunners looked like a side transformed in the second period. The attacking intent was much more evident, and within 10 minutes of the restart, Arteta’s side did what Bielsa’s team should have done probably three or four times in 45 minutes.

Some terrific work from Pepe found Lacazette out wide, who in turn fed the young Reiss Nelson. His shot was poorly hit but there was enough on it to beat Meslier and give Arsenal the breakthrough. As they say, the job of the front men is to put the ball in the back of the net, never mind how. They all count at the end of the day, and Arsenal’s change in attitude and tactics had clearly paid off.

The Gunners’ defence had been instrumental in the victory over United, and the centre-back pairing of David Luiz and Sokratis were proving their worth once more. The latter was playing in an unfamiliar right-back position, but was winning all the aerial duels and showed fantastic defensive awareness throughout the game. Bielsa’s side were clearly rocked by Arsenal’s opener, and still showed plenty of quality on the ball, but Arsenal’s back-line had nullified their attacks and gave Arteta his second win, as well as back-to-back clean sheets, in two games.

Leeds gave a terrific account of themselves throughout the match, and if they had simply put their chances away, it could have been a completely different story at the final whistle. With their 8,000 strong support, and some magnificent football on show, it’s fair to say a lot of fans are excited at the prospect of seeing Leeds back in England’s top flight once again.

Speaking after the game, Man Of The Match Lacazette admitted that Arteta “shouted a lot” during half time. And to be perfectly honest, who can blame him? You could have been forgiven for thinking Unai Emery was still at the helm with the way Arsenal played in the first 45 minutes. But Arteta is a manager who is not going to stand for any nonsense. He expects 100% from his players day in, day out, whether that be training or match days. Such a mentality is going to be key in getting Arsenal back on track in the league and progressing further in the FA Cup and EL.

A trip to Selhurst Park and Crystal Palace awaits Arsenal next, who can be feeling very optimistic about their future under the Spaniard.

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