Arsenal 1-1 Leeds: Leeds close to another shock
A penalty for either side – Arsenal’s coming in the final minute – meant these two sides will have to settle the tie at Elland Road next week.
Arsene Wenger made sweeping changes to his side, keeping only Alex Song and Johan Djourou from the XI that failed to beat Manchester City. Nicklas Bendtner was used on the right, with Marouane Chamakh upfront.
Simon Grayson went with the 4-2-3-1 system he’s played in recent weeks. Arsenal loanee Sanchez Watt started on the right, with Robert Snodgrass in the centre. Ben Parker started at left-back, making just his second appearance of the season.
The match could reasonably held up as a stereotypical FA Cup tie. The outsiders played above themselves and the game was scrappy – not great for technical quality, but hugely entertaining throughout.
Leeds set out well
Grayson’s tactical approach was largely spot on. Snodgrass was used just off Luciano Becchio and drifted from flank to flank in behind the Arsenal holding players, but more importantly for Leeds, it meant two pacey players on the wings, so Max Gradel and Watt tracked Kieran Gibbs and Emmanuel Eboue’s runs forward – Gradel in particular was his typical energetic self, often ending up as an additional left-back when Eboue scampered into the final third.
Snodgrass and Becchio also pressed Arsenal’s centre-backs when Wojciech Szczesny had the ball, which meant Arsenal were unable to play out from the back, and Szczesny was instead forced to launch the ball up the pitch, and therefore Arsenal struggled to get into a passing rhythm.
This was less of an issue for them than usual, since in Bendtner and Chamakh they had two players capable of challenging in the air. It did play into the hands of Leeds’ defenders, however, who were much keener on having an aerial battle than trying to cut out Arsenal’s slick passing game.
Arsenal cumbersome in attack
Overall, however, Arsenal’s combination of attackers didn’t work. Bendtner never looks completely comfortable on the wing – he takes too many touches on the ball and slows attacks down, and had a tendency to retreat with the ball, rather than taking on his man. There was a similar problem with Chamakh, who after starting the season winning penalties and free-kicks with his determination to turn quickly and get past defenders, now seems much keener to cut back when he picks up the ball, again meaning that Arsenal play in front of the opposition rather than getting in behind. Andrei Arshavin was the one player who did make a run past the defence to meet a good Tomas Rosicky ball, but his touch was poor and this seemed to affect his confidence for the rest of the game.
Rosicky was Arsenal’s best player in the first half, finding space between the lines and playing some good passes. Leeds’ central midfielders, whilst performing well, did have the attitude of scrappy Championship players – they were too keen to close down Song and Denilson in possession, which meant space opened up for Rosicky. Still, the Czech was not given many promising runs ahead of him from his teammates, and Wenger omitting Theo Walcott seemed like a poor decision. There was obviously a desire to rest Walcott, but Leeds’ defence was so prone to pace in behind that it surely would have been worth starting him – it’s difficult to see how Leeds would have been able to cope with Rosicky in space playing balls through the defence for Walcott to come onto.
Leeds take the lead
Still, Leeds dealt with the opposition they were presented with well. Their centre-backs won everything in the air and the wingers closed down Arsenal’s full-backs when they got the ball. They also had some degree of attacking threat – not enough to produce many clear-cut chances, but they were forcing Arsenal into misplaced passes in their own half, and also forcing Arshavin and Bendtner to retreat further than they would have liked, easing the pressure on the back four. That back four defended relatively narrow but did not specifically invite crosses.
Leeds went ahead early in the second half – Gradel won a penalty that was converted by Snodgrass, and Leeds found themselves 1-0 up.
Walcott leads fightback
Wenger’s response was to bring on Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott, and Arsenal were immediately much brighter. Much of that was down to Walcott, who provided pace, directness and confidence on the ball that was clearly lacking from the front three in the first half. Grayson brought on Leigh Bromby as a fifth defender and went 5-4-1, but perhaps conceded some midfield ground to Arsenal and invited pressure in doing so.
Still, he was minutes away from getting the win. It was no surprise, though, that Walcott was the man who eventually made a difference. His pace created four notable moments – a good cross into the box that Bendtner didn’t convert, a run to meet a ball over the defence that he lofted into Kasper Schmichel’s arms, and he then was brought down for two penalty shouts, the second of which was given. Fabregas converted to make it 1-1, and Leeds had to withstand heavy pressure in stoppage time.
Leeds defended well both tactically and practically – they pressed Arsenal’s centre-backs but also did the scrappy stuff at the back excellently. Only failure to cope with Rosicky looked like undoing them early on, but Arsenal’s lack of directness from their wide players failed to punish them here.
Walcott was the game’s key player – Arsenal clearly missed his pace when he was on the bench, then he provided almost all their bright moments when he finally arrived.