|Arsenal 1 v 0 Leeds United|
Monday, 6th January 2020 Kick-off 19:56
Excellent performance ends in defeat at Arsenal
Tuesday, 7th Jan 2020 22:23 by Tim Whelan
We gave a great account of ourselves and drew plaudits from the length and breadth of the national media, but in the end it was Arsenal who secured a trip to Bournemouth in the fourth round.
Marcello Bielsa made five changes from the team who began the last game at West Brom, but three of them were to recall the experienced trio of Douglas, Berardi and Bamford. Only the debutants Meslier and Gotts were true fringe players, so it was a pretty strong line-up. Even though the cup wasn’t a priority, you can’t take too many liberties against a team in the top half of the Premiership without risking a hiding.
Arsenal weren’t taking many chances, and the side they put out was pretty close to their strongest available once injuries had been taken into account. Arteta may well see this as a valuable opportunity to win a trophy early in his managerial reign, and clearly wants to take the competition seriously now they are lagging well behind the top four.
From the start Leeds took the game to the opposition, while our 8,000 – strong following also dominated the atmosphere off the field, and have also drawn praise from Arsenal fans, one comment being that we were proper supporters, not tourists. It was unfortunate that most of the action was down the other end of the field, at the goal Leeds attacked in the first half and Arsenal the second.
Our first chance came from a free kick, which Bamford headed just wide. And our next came from a quick break, when Klich played in Bamford, though Harrison might have been the better option to his right. Bamford took a little too long to get his shot away, and a defender had just enough time to race back and make the block.
But still the chances kept coming, and a Martinez had to be alert to deal with a swerving shot from Harrison, then a fierce shot from Bamford came back off the bar. Then Gotts played in Alioski, but with no one in a good position for the cross he had to shoot from an angle that didn’t favour a left footer, and it curled the wrong way and past the far post.
The home fans were getting more frustrated at their team’s pedestrian performance, as was Arteta, the new gunners boss scowling ever more fiercely on the touchline. Phillips was doing an excellent job keeping Ozil quiet, and Meslier looked assured whenever the ball came his way, and showed some excellent passing ability.
Perhaps the idea of selecting the young keeper was to assess how he performed in a first team game, with one eye on the possible ban for Casilla. If Bielsa wanted to know if we need to get another keeper during the transfer window, on this evidence the answer is definitely not, as Meslier will be a more than capable deputy if need be.
Our other debutant nearly had his moment of glory when a great chance fell to him six yards out, but unfortunately he got underneath it and sent the ball over the bar. What a story that would have been. There was another opportunity when Alioski just beat a defender to get on the end of a cross from Ayling, but under pressure he couldn’t get the contact he needed and Marinez was able to palm it away.
So we went at half time with the game still goalless, and once again it was the same old story of Leeds failing to convert our dominance into goals. We had numerous shots on target, but most of them were too close to Martinez and he didn’t have to work that hard to keep them out. And if we thought we needed to score when we were on top we were right, as it was a much improved Arsenal who came out for the second half.
Arteta had given them a right dressing down during the break, and it showed, as Nelson made a run into the box right at the start of the second period, requiring a last ditch block from Douglas. Then Lacazzette had two good chances, hitting the bar and then being denied by a great save from Meslier.
This was clearly going to be the proverbial game of two halves, and Guendouzi sent a shot just wide. We did manage a break away to relieve the pressure, but this ended with an optimistic Bamford shot that was saved fairly comfortably, when passing to Alioski might have been a better idea.
And unlike Leeds, Arsenal actually did manage to convert their possession into a goal, albeit a rather fortunate one. The decisive moment came in the 55th minute when a Lacazette cross deflected off Berardi, and an attempted clearance from Douglas fell kindly for Nelson. Even then his shot was rather scuffed, but it looped over the diving Meslier into the net.
We did our best to get back into the game, but now Arsenal seemed to have a bit more energy, possibly because most of them had slept though the first 45 minutes. Gotts had a shot from distance, but again sent it over the bar, and that was just about his last contribution, as Bielsa decided that fresher legs were needed.
Match Gallery: 26 photos
On the hour Gotts and Alioski made way for Dallas and Costa, with Harrison switching from the right flank to the left. I thought Alioski was unlucky to be replaced, as he’d given Arsenal’s stand-in right back a torrid time, although his habit of getting caught offside had resurfaced. These changes did little to change the flow of the game, though at least Costa did force the referee to finally book an Arsenal player, when Kolasinac cynically pulled him back.
Anthony Taylor had given numerous free kicks for fouls by Xhaka without producing a yellow card, but booked Klich for his first notable offence when his patience finally snapped. All of which supports the theory that Premiership referees will favour the Premiership players they are more familiar with.
And there was a bigger controversy to come, when Berardi tangled with Lacazette off the ball, ending with a bit of a kick from the Arsenal man. There was a hold-up while the VAR guys reviewed the incident, but unlike in the similar incident at Selhust Park on Sunday, the ref didn’t bother to use the pitchside monitor.
Mr. Taylor decided no action was warranted, but to be honest I didn’t think the kick was hard enough to count as violent conduct, unlike many Leeds fans on social media who insist Lacazette should have got a red card. But that’s because I judge these things by the standard of the 1970s, when you had to take someone’s leg off to be dismissed.
As time ran out we had a free kick from Douglas that had neither the power or direction to trouble Martinez, and at the other end Martinelli would have made the game safe but for another fine save from Meslier. Stevens came on for Luke Ayling, but the most notable action of the last few minutes was another melee that required a good look at on VAR.
That came after Arsenal frustrated Leeds by keeping the ball in the corner, and there was a lot of pushing and shoving to look at from several different angles before they decided that no further action was needed. The two VAR breaks meant that five minutes of stoppage time would be needed, but that wasn’t long enough for Leeds to force an equaliser, and that was the end of our FA Cup for another season.
And so we could leave the Emirates with our heads held high, and many reports in today’s press have said this shows we will do well in next season’s Premiership if we do manage to get there. And with that being the priority this season, most of us won’t fell that disappointed that we’ve gone out and avoided the possibility of any unwelcome fixture congestion.
Hopefully this time next year we’ll be established in the Premier League and comfortably clear of the bottom three, and we’ll be able to give the FA Cup a proper good go. And if we play well as well as this in a third round tie under those circumstances, let’s hope we can actually go on and win the bloody thing.
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