Not quite the game I wanted to see and certainly not the result.
Leeds United came with a plan and stuck to it. In some ways it was similar to what Newcastle did at the Emirates. The visitors went tight on each man and reduced the passing options. They pressed well and in coordination. The Arsenal players were able to move the ball at the back but weren’t able to penetrate the lines with any sort of consistency.
The first real opening of the game came in the 11th minute when Arshavin raced onto a pass in behind by Rosicky. It was the first time in the game that Leeds left some space in behind and Arsenal were able to exploit it. Unfortunately, the Russian is lacking confidence and wasn’t able to finish off the chance. I don’t know why Chamakh stopped running. He was off side but he could have run in parallel to or slightly away from the ball. That would have given Arshavin another option and something for the Keeper to worry about.
The game went into a lull for the next fifteen minutes or so. Arsenal were not moving the ball fast enough and the movement upfront was disappointing. Schmeichel in the Leeds goal was again worked in the 26th minute when Arshavin fired in a volley from outside the box. Decent attempt but the Keeper was always the favourite to save that.
In the next few minutes Arsenal sustained some pressure, won a number of corners and had a couple of efforts cleared off the line.
The Gunners were getting into their stride and Arshavin slid Bendtner through in the 33rd minute. Only a fantastic last gasp tackle by the son of Steve Bruce prevented the Dane from getting his strike on goal. Bendtner had a couple of other opportunistic strikes but Leeds did well in their defensive third for rest of the half.
At the end of the half my feeling was that Arsenal were holding back and being patient. There weren’t enough midfield runs into the box, even the strikers didn’t move around that well, and the full backs weren’t contributing as much to the attack as I’d have liked. On the other hand, Leeds barely created a chance and never looked like seriously threatening the Arsenal goal.
Arsene must have said something at half-time as the team came out with more purpose. Within a minute or so after restart, Song burst into the box after a nice one-two with Rosicky. There were three men in the box but the Cameroonian’s cut back was behind everyone. Arsenal had good pressure for five minutes after the break.
When the visitors did get a chance to go forward they won a penalty out of nothing. A long diagonal ball was played out to Snodgrass on Arsenal’s right. Eboue was tight on his man but no one was within miles of Gradel who accepted a simple pass and darted into the box. Denilson conceded a daft penalty as the Leeds winger cut back towards his right. Szczesny guessed correctly but made a poor effort of saving the shot that went under him.
Not surprisingly, the goal lifted their spirits and rattled Arsenal. The Gunners tried to be more expansive but lacked cohesion and understanding. The decision making by some players in the final third was woeful. The team also lost its defensive shape and allowed Leeds more space in attack.
Cesc came on just before the hour mark and immediately improved Arsenal’s play. Soon after, Eboue put in a great cross but Bruce got a touch that prevented Chamakh from heading home.
On the other end Arsenal conceded a corner and Szczesny made a brilliant reflex save to keep the deficit to one goal.
Cesc was looking to pull the strings but some of the players, especially Bendtner and Arshavin, were just not on the same page.
In the 67th minute Theo came on for Chamakh. Leeds brought on a defender and it looked like they were playing a 5-4-1 after that.
Leeds won a free kick in the 70th minute but Snodgrass couldn’t hit the target. Szczesny was covering the shot over the wall and might have been wrong footed it the Leeds winger had hit the target.
Immediately, at the other end, Bendtner had a shout for a penalty but the ref gave a corner. I couldn’t make my mind up after the replays but the feeling was that the defender had done enough.
In the next fifteen minutes or so Arsenal created some half chances but the final ball or the finish was still lacking. The play was more urgent and much better than before but not good enough to break down a determined opponent.
With less than three minutes of normal time remaining I thought Theo was fouled and the ref pointed to the spot. Inexplicably, the linesman gave an offside that came after the penalty incident. Astonishingly, in an unbelievably stupid move, Walcott later came out and apologized for the dive. I’ve not seen the incident again so I can’t say whether there was any form of contact or not but Walcott needs to know better.
It didn’t matter much as Theo did win a legitimate penalty within seconds of the previous incident. Bendtner did well to play him in and the defender clearly pulled the Englishman’s arm. El Capitan was calmness personified but I must confess I was not very confident about Cesc taking the penalty.
After equalizing, Arsenal created two or three other chances in stoppage time. An excellent save by Schmeichel from a Denilson thunderbolt stood out. Bendtner couldn’t hit the target with his weak foot after a brilliant ball from Cesc sent him through. Walcott hit the side netting from a tight angle.
It was a disappointing result and just adds another fixture to an already tight schedule. The return leg will now be played between the West Ham and Wigan games in the Premiership.
The overwhelming feeling I had after the match was that some players were just not able to play together. Was the passing constrained by the lack of movement up front or was the movement poor because the incisive passes never arrived (weren’t expected)?
The team that played was strong enough and should have secured an easy win. Credit to Leeds for their effort but they didn’t have any real attacking quality. Their central defenders and the Keeper did a good job but Arsenal should have posed a more potent threat.
Nonetheless, this was a much better performance by the second string when compared to the displays against Shakhtar or Wigan. Hopefully, these players will improve their understanding once they get to play more often.
Szczesny: one excellent save, did well to control the bouncing ball under pressure, distribution needs improvement, should have saved the penalty but it’s difficult to fault him for that. Szczesny and Fabianski have this tendency of taking a step to cover behind the wall on set-pieces and one of these days they will be caught out by that. It needs more work on the training ground.
Eboue: Decent in the defensive areas, mostly disappointing in the attacking third.
Djourou: Very good game. Won a number of headers, marked the striker out for large parts of the game, some useful tackles and interceptions as well.
Squillaci: Wasn’t really tested much as Leeds didn’t come forward in numbers. Don’t recall any outstanding moments in attack or defence. No blunders either.
Gibbs: Fairly decent defensively. Could have done better with his crosses.
The back five weren’t really troubled. For the first 50 minutes or so Leeds hardly challenged them. Similarly, it was quite easy in the final 20 minutes. The two shots on target came from a penalty conceded by Denilson and a mistake by Chamakh on the corner. Can’t really blame the defenders for this result.
Song: Disappointing. This is the kind of game where he should be stamping his authority and dominating the pitch. Did OK in the defensive areas but his passing in the attacking areas was poor.
Rosicky: another one who had a frustrating game. Some moments in attack, like the pass that set-up Arshavin, were surrounded by poor passes, insufficient movement, and a general lack of desire and/or ability to control the game.
Denilson: Had a mixed bag. Made some important tackles, moved the ball better than the other two midfielders, came up with a couple of excellent shots on target. Messed it all up with a silly foul that led to the penalty. All he had to do was hold his position and make the attacker force the play. He’s made these kinds of mistakes far too often and it takes a lot away from his otherwise meaningful contributions.
The midfield was annoyingly pedestrian until Cesc came on.
Bendtner: Showed a lot more desire and energy than any of the other players in the front six. Had some moments and shots on goal. Should have done better with his headers. On another day he might have scored.
Chamakh: Movement wasn’t good enough, not sure if that was down to a lack of understanding with Arshavin and Bendtner. Missed his man Becchio on the set-piece and that could have led to a second goal. Didn’t get enough supply in the box but didn’t do well with what he got. Should have shown more energy and pace, especially given the rest he’s had recently.
Arshavin: Another one who was a mixed bag. Was involved with almost everything Arsenal did going forwards in the first hour or so. Struggled to gel with Bendtner, finishing lacked confidence, didn’t offer enough in attack or defence.
The front three weren’t very good. I’m not sure if the attackers made the midfielders underperform or vice versa.
Subs: Cesc probably deserved the MotM for his display and that says a lot about the others. Theo missed a couple of chances but kept trying and won the penalty. Vela hardly got into the game.
Upon reflection, the performance wasn’t all that bad and Leeds deserve their share of credit, but the fact that a replay will just drain more from the key players makes it really exasperating.