Even if Leeds weren’t the league leaders, the Championship is an incredibly competitive, physical league and nothing to turn your nose up at. The fact that they are the leading team meant they demanded respect in our team selection and performance. It transpired that Arteta knew as much but there was a 45 minute delay in that message getting through to the players…
Regardless of Aubameyang’s absence through “illness” (and hopefully not indicative of any, more nefarious dealings), our starting lineup showed the kind of intent you’d expect but what unfolded was far from pretty, at least from an Arsenal perspective.
Sokratis at right back isn’t something I’ll be jumping to see again (as much as I enjoyed the constant shithousery, which was a far cry from the cool, calm and collected player we’re used to) but with Ainsley’s absence from the squad, we didn’t have too many options here. Based on some of the challenges we saw, it was a good job he was left out because the idea of Sokratis facing Zaha in 5 days time really doesn’t bear thinking about. No chance to bear-hug or tap-tackle someone when they’ve already left you in the dust.
Holding came back into the middle with his first appearance since 9th November. His rustiness was to be expected and it showed, up against the likes of Bamford – a tricky character, and the epitome of Leeds’ bullish style leading from the front – Holding struggled in the early stages with some misplaced passes and jittery play. Luckily, most of the team was playing like they’d been injured since 9th November so he didn’t exactly look out of place.
I really didn’t care much for the first 20 minutes. There’s something that feels inherently wrong about being dominated for possession, on your own turf, to lower league opposition but that is the situation we found ourselves in. They were even out-Arsenaling us, seeing a shot crash off the crossbar after some neat one-touch passing. Seeing Martinez peppered with shots was an eerie reminder of Emery’s Arsenal, facing 7 shots (to our single shot) inside this period. Having so much experience on the pitch left these players with nowhere to hide, with Luiz, Xhaka, Holding, Martinez and Guendouzi all misplacing passes, needlessly inviting danger in the opening stages. If not for Martinez and some solid goalkeeping, we may well have gone behind.
There’s always an air of smaller teams “having a go” in cup games – having been in the situation myself , albeit at a significantly more irrelevant level – you do get an extra 10% in every sense. The saving grace was the hope that Leeds wouldn’t be able to maintain this kind of intensity for 90 minutes.
As half time approached, Özil had managed just 9 touches – the fewest of any player. Somewhat understandable given the abysmal standards of our passing and his lack of service but quite the contrast after his performance against United. In fairness, the distance he covered and the intensity of that performance leaves me with some sympathy and he redeemed himself in the second half, integral to us eventually finding our feet in the tie.
The goal was a bit scrappy and Leeds will have surely felt aggrieved to be behind after creating so much, but that is invariably the difference between teams in different divisions. Arteta had clearly given them a kick up the proverbial* but it wasn’t exactly vintage – more of a half-Nelson, if you will. All it took was an injection of quality and pace from Pépé, a ball into the right neck of the woods from Lacazette and someone on the end of it.
In the end, it was enough to see the game out, with a far more resolute performance – at both ends – in the second half. It was the kind of response we needed and we’re through to the 4th round. One advantage of playing such a strong team is it’s another game under Arteta’s belt that’s representative of what he has to work with on a day-to-day basis. Blooding the kids in the League Cup and early stages of the Europa League is a valuable experience, but in Arteta’s case, he’s still getting to grips with our formation, lineup and playing style and making wholesale changes can disrupt that learning process. More to the point, I don’t think a youthful lineup would’ve coped with Leeds tonight.
Still, it’s another win and another clean sheet. We now have 5 days of rest and preparation ahead of our 6-pointer at Crystal Palace. I wish I was joking but they’re actually a point ahead of us, so it should be an interesting match.
Leeds will be rueing their chances all the way down the M1 (and M621) but they’re likely to have a chance at redemption next season, with a sizeable buffer between themselves (and West Brom) and those vying for a chance at the playoffs. I don’t usually care to talk about the opposition, but some of the football Leeds played tonight was worthy of being in a red shirt with white sleeves and would suggest they’ll make a great addition to the Premier League next year. Once a mainstay of the division, their fall from grace was prolonged but they look like a team ready to compete in the Premier League again and Bielsa’s extensive experience and expertise will stand them in good stead.
*This was later confirmed by Lacazette after picking up the Man of the Match trophy, who simply said “he shout a lot”. The contrast to Arteta’s face when he was informed of his players’ perception of the half time talk really was something.
That is a man who is – safe to say – thoroughly uninterested in placating every player (or journalist) with frivolities and will step on toes if needed. This is exactly the sort of behaviour we’d heard he was capable of, even as a player, and the kind of response he garnered from the team in the second half would suggest he’s exactly the kind of man we need going forward. A coach demands respect and for whatever reason, the dressing room was the first thing Emery began to lose.
Given some of the reports to emerge regarding individuals in the squad mocking Emery (for his accent and inability to communicate clearly, much like the circumstances that led to his undoing at PSG) you’d perhaps wonder if a man of such inexperience as Arteta would struggle to command the respect needed but that look on his face has put any doubts to bed, for me. If he’s doing that to a reporter who’s just doing their job, I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Arteta started addressing the wayward passing and domination we were subjected to in the first half! We’ve been missing some of this no-nonsense stuff for a while and coupled with his insistence on doing training ground exercises by the book, these are all positive indicators going forward.
Palace will be a different kettle of fish but we at least have time for a breather after a tumultuous December. Rumours of wholesale change in the transfer market have been doing the rounds, but I suspect it will be predominantly outgoings. Your guess is as good as mine, given how secretive Raul and Co. were in the summer, so until something actually happens, I’ll be keeping quiet, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for a quality centre-back and central midfielder.