Leeds 1-3 Arsenal: Nasri inspires Arsenal

January 19, 2011

The starting line-ups

Leeds were unable to reproduce their heroics of last weekend, as Arsenal progress to the fourth round.

Simon Grayson made one change from the first game. Luciano Becchio was out injured, so Billy Paynter came in.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from that 1-1 draw – Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny started, whilst Samir Nasri was used in place of Tomas Rosicky.

That was the only change to Arsenal’s front six, and the improvement in Arsenal’s passing and movement in the final third must be attributed mainly to Nasri’s presence. He was yet again superb, linking play, finding space between the lines, and popping up to open the scoring before the game had established a clear pattern.

Positional changes

Leeds used two of their attacking players in a different way to at the Emirates. There, on-loan Arsenal player Sanchez Watt started on the right, with Robert Snodgrass through the centre. Today, it was the reverse – Snodgrass reverted to his right-sided role, and Watt played in the centre having impressed there against Scunthorpe at the weekend. This was presumably a move to give Leeds some pace upfront, having seen how vulnerable the Arsenal backline was to balls over the top in last week’s defeat to Ipswich.

Arsenal also made a switch in positioning, albeit minor. Alex Song was on the left of the midfield duo with Denilson on the right, the reverse of the usual situation. The most plausible reason for this was that Wenger wanted to protect Kieran Gibbs more against the trickery of Snodgrass or Watt, though it’s rare that Wenger changes his preferred starting XI specifically for a particular opponent, especially when playing a side so clearly inferior to Arsenal in pure technical ability.

Sagna free

The main battle of the game was happening down the opposite side of the pitch, however. Wenger surprisingly left Theo Walcott out – despite him having changed the first leg completely after his introduction, and despite his contribution to all three goals as Arsenal defeated West Ham at the weekend. Walcott’s pace would have terrorised Leeds left-back Ben Parker, but this was instead left to Sagna, who charged up and down the right flank like Dani Alves for most of the first half, allowing Nicklas Bendtner infield into his favoured central position.

Sagna nearly set up Bendtner with one of his darts forward, then powered a shot into the top corner to give Arsenal a 2-0 lead. The complete absence of any closing down from the Leeds defence when the ball dropped to the French right-back was bizarre, and Grayson decided to switch Max Gradel (who had a poor game defensively) and Watt, who was positionally disciplined and used his pace to track Sagna very well.

In truth, Arsenal were in control until Leeds got back in it with Bradley Johnson’s astonishing long-range strike – and then the home side grew in confidence.

Second half

Leeds came out rejuvenated for the second half, and pressed very intensely from the front. Whereas Watt had been given instructions to drop in on Song when Leeds lost the ball in the first half, Gradel (now playing in that position) was ordered to stay high up the pitch, as Leeds more or less went with a 4-4-2. The pressing worked well for 10 minutes or so, before Leeds tired and Arsenal used the ball better in midfield, where they now had a numerical advantage.

Still, Leeds threatened – mainly down their right, partly thanks to Arshavin’s lack of defensive ability. Leeds’ best chance came when Paul Connolly overlapped past the Russian and combined well with Snodgrass, but his cross was hit too hard at substitute Davide Somma, and bounced wide.

Wenger introduced Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, and Arsenal eventually made the game safe when Leeds pushed forward more for the equaliser – Bendtner’s cross was nodded in at the far post by van Persie. The Dutchman has supposedly been working on his heading in training – this was the first sign that work has paid off.

Conclusion

There were two key factors here – Nasri’s return, and Sagna’s freedom to get forward down the right. Grayson’s overall strategy was the right approach, but he’ll have been disappointed that Nasri and Sagna were simply not tracked properly for the first two goals, which put Arsenal in command.

Leeds 1-3 Arsenal: Nasri inspires Arsenal

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