Dirty Leeds United 1-3 Arsenal: Redemption

(Note: All pictures courtesy of Arseblog)

Due to a bit of a horrid cold, I left work early and was able to watch this from the comfort of my living room (as an aside, this is also the first of these that I have written where I saw the game without drinking at a bar, watching a smallish screen from a good distance...I also took notes!). I should be sick more often! Anyway, it was difficult at times, but a much-improved Arsenal performance saw our boys overcome the spirited challenge of Dirty Leeds in the 4th-round FA Cup Replay on Wednesday. A date with Huddersfield Town awaits at the Emirates on January 30th, and you have to like our chances in that one.

The starting XI was a bit of a mish-mash between our full first-choice side and some of the reserves that didn't cover themselves with glory in the opening fixture of this round. Lukasz Fabianski is still injured, so Wojciech Szezcsny continued in goal. Bacary Sagna returned from suspension at RB, Kieran Gibbs recovered from injury to start on the left, while our only two fit center backs continued on. Marouane Chamakh led the line with Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner on either side, while Samir Nasri captained the side from central midfield. Denilson and Alex Song were ostensibly in the holding role, but you know how that goes this season.

While Arsenal dominated the early stages, it could have all been different early on. In the first minute, Sagna showed a little rust with a poor back header towards his keeper. Max Gradel - the little winger who gave us so many problems in the first go-round - nipped in and had some room to run at Szezcsny. You know, it's funny - I was talking to my roommate during the latter stages of the game about the extremely minor differences that separate First Division players from their Premiership counterparts...this was a perfect example. Gradel's composure abandoned him, and he fired miles wide on a chance where he should have tested the young Pole. It didn't stop there, as Laurent Koscielny also erred in the 4th minute. His poor clearance went out to Gradel, who had cut into the center. He took a few steps, allowing our man to recover from his mistake to get the block in. A bit of a nervy start, this, but it would get better in a hurry.

Just one minute later, Robert Snodgrass was blocked off the ball by Song. He laid the ball off to Gibbs, and the young Englishman hit an intelligent ball up to Chamakh. As he has done so often this season, he held it up well to allow help to arrive. Arshavin came up the wing (displaying a tad bit more energy than in previous matches), and returned to Chamakh. The Moroccan dummied beautifully to take the two center-halves out of the play. The onrushing Nasri took the ball and was in alone. Remember what I was saying about minor differences between players from the two divisions? Leeds keeper Kasper Schmeichel stayed on his line instead of challenging Nasri like he should have. Not only that, but he flinched eeeeeeeever so slightly to his right. To his credit, Nasri picked up on it, and casually rolled the ball into the left corner, leaving Schmeichel no chance. It was a great team goal, and it took a lot of the pressure off by making Leeds open up so soon into the game. Now, they couldn't sit back and hope to nick a goal on the break.

In their efforts to get back into the match, Leeds ended up making a tactical error. Teams that defend well against Arsenal do so by pressing incessantly, but by doing it on a man-to-man basis. Leeds tried to double-team the man on the ball, leaving far too much space against our slick-passing midfield and forwards. Leeds were on the back foot, and the Gunners should have doubled their lead in the 11th minute. My notes say that "# 19" fouled Sagna on the right, but I find that they don't have one of those...maybe it was Billy Paynter, who wears # 9? Anyway, Arshavin lashed in a decent ball, and found the wide-open Chamakh. I'm not sure how Leeds failed in their marking so badly, but Schmeichel bailed them out with a strong one-handed save. The color guy was going on and on about how it should be a goal, but when a keeper makes a save like that, all you can do is tip your hat to him, really.

Dirty Leeds weren't getting completely blown out though, and could have had some chances along the way if they were, you know, better. Denilson in particular was godawful again (note to the reader: I have an irrational hatred for this guy, so I pick up on his mistakes more than I do for others. Deal with it.), and his giveaway in the center almost led to another chance. Luckily, the Arsenal center-halves of Koscielny and Johan Djourou had yet another solid game. In the absence of the Verminator, they have to be first-choice the rest of the way, one feels.

Leeds manager Simon Grayson must have picked up on the tactical mistake that was made, as his side went more to a man-marking system from the 18th minute on. It worked better, but Arsenal still carved them open at times. After some good work down the right, Bendtner sent a teasing cross to the back post, but Arshavin was far too late getting there. Note that, kids, this will repeat a lot as we go on...three minutes later, in fact! After Djourou cleared out a dangerous ball from Snodgrass, we countered quickly and it came to Arshavin outside the area. Someone on the International Space Station now has a souvenir.

It wasn't all Arshavin though in the blowing-chances sweepstakes. In almost a mirror image of the previous cross to the back post, Sagna found himself in acres down the right and crossed for Bendtner. Sadly, the result was also a mirror image. But, our little Russian wasn't just fucking up on the offensive end. He too decided to get in on the "dodgy back header" fad, but Szezcsny was alert and smothered before Gradel could make anything out of it. Snodgrass then wasted a chance by shooting right at WS53 - but I mention this because here in the 32nd, my notes say "The Leeds goal is coming".

Thankfully, it did after Arsenal extended their lead at 34'. Sagna started the move on his own goal by scything the ball away from Arsenal loanee Sanchez Watt. It flew out to Bendtner, who made a strong and direct run at their defense. Nasri joined him for a give-and-go, but Nik's first touch on the return was awful. Andy O'Brien's clearance came out to Sagna on the wing...he cut inside, said "fuck it, I'll have a go", and hammered it towards the top corner. Schmeichel got both hands on it, but there's those First Division differences again. Ali Al-Habsi or Ben Foster saves this, Schmeichel lets it go through his hands. No complaints from this corner, though...2-0 to the Arsenal and things looked good.

So, of course, Leeds scored three minutes later. The second goal stung them back into life, and they attacked in waves. The Arsenal defense were dealing with it well, but on one clear attempt Arshavin was clearly fouled right in front of the linesman. He had gone down a little easy a few times before, so he didn't get the call. The ball came out to Bradley Johnson, 35 yards from goal. He reared back and took a shot that would go into low Earth orbit 99 times out of 100. This was that one goddamn time, as it flew past the helpless Szezcsny and into the top corner. Fuck's fucking sake.

To the lads' credit though, they didn't buckle when Leeds hit back. Gradel helped out again by skying another decent chance over the bar, but their best chance came with a minute remaining. Denilson slipped in midfield (FUCKING SELL HIM NOW, ARSENE) allowing Leeds to break in numbers. The Gunner defense was at sixes and sevens, but the three Leeds attackers were clumped far too close together. That allowed our guys to get back under control and clear away...but an equalizer there could potentially have been devastating. Fucking Denilson.

Whatever Le Boss said at halftime worked, as Arsenal came out much more composed for the second half. It should actually have been 3-1 inside of 20 seconds, as the Gunners broke right from the kickoff. Song won a header, and Nasri combined well with Bendtner to free Song in the penalty area. The angle was a bit tight, but a more attacking player would have still been expected to finish. Instead, the save was relatively comfortable for Schmeichel in the end.

The statement of intent was there, though, and Nasri threatened with a free kick minutes later. That one was right at the young Danish keeper, but the goal was coming. Leeds did briefly counter with Gradel down the wing, operating in the space left when Sagna was clipped on the heels (no call, of course). Bendtner did wonderfully well to track back though, and he held up Gradel long enough for Sagna to get back.

Nik's strong play continued as he did well to keep a ball in play on the right touchline. He eluded a defender, and got it to Chamakh, who found Nasri. The Frenchman passed to Arshavin, who was in acres on the left. The pass was a bit soft though, and Snodgrass bravely flew in with a tackle that would have been a penalty if he'd have gotten it wrong. Arshavin was back a few minutes later with another chance on the left, but his finish again was found wanting. At this point, I wrote in my notes: "Get this guy off the fucking field!".

The last good chance for Leeds came right after the hour, and that man Gradel was in the center of it again. Much like our back-post chances in the first half, his cross was perfect but Paynter could not get anything on it at the back stick.

Arsene must have thought it was slipping away a bit, as he withdrew the putrid Arshavin and the much-better Chamakh, bringing on Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. Within two minutes, the captain had flashed a free kick just wide. Within five minutes, the ball was in Schmeichel's net again.

Fabregas started the move, passing to Bendtner. The Dane saw van Persie making an eviscerating run through the Leeds center-halves, and found him with a gorgeous cross. All van Persie had to do was nod the ball into the net, with Schmeichel all at sea. Wonderful goal from the Arsenal, and that put paid to any potential Leeds comeback.

In fact, the game fairly fizzled out after that. Nasri was withdrawn for Clichy late on, but no further chances were created. Arsenal had much of the ball and smartly kept possession, playing out time until Mike Dean blew his whistle. All in all, this was a good, solid win for the Gunners and leaves us with a winnable tie in the 4th round. As long as the same level of effort and application is given despite the Terriers being lower-league opposition, then we should easily be in the hat for the next round of the FA Cup.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szezcsny 7, Gibbs 7, Djourou 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 8, Arshavin 4 (Fabregas 7), Song 7, Denilson 5, Nasri 8 (Clichy N/A), Bendtner 8 (MOTM), Chamakh 8 (van Persie 7)