In a way this was a fairy tale return for Thierry Henry. Wenger acknowledged as much in his post-match press conference when he said,
It was like a dream when he scored, it was the story you would tell a kid. It is not often like that in our game.
But one could as well say there was an air of predictability about the football and the result. It was all Arsenal for most of the game with the only missing ingredient being the finishing quality in the final third. Henry was most likely to provide that given the form of some players in a line-up depleted by injuries.
The first half was rather dull and eminently forgettable. Arshavin had three shots in the opening four minutes and should really have scored with his third. Apart from that the Gunners were restricted to a number of half chances as the visitors sat back to defend.
I thought Leeds came out with a very diffident approach in the opening period while Arsenal weren’t really able to get the creativity flowing despite dominating the ball with ease.
Arshavin was lively but lacked the precision that comes instinctively when a player is in form. Chamakh linked play well but never looked like he would get into scoring positions. Oxlade-Chamberlain was stuck on the flank and didn’t get any space to run into. The industrious Ramsey got into interesting areas and displayed some tricks but again his final ball or finish wasn’t at the required level. Song and Arteta were playing it safe while the young full-backs bombed up and down without really getting in-behind. I don’t think Lonergan had a save to make in the first half.
The Gunners were also disappointing with their corners although Squillaci did go close from a set-piece.
At the other end Leeds were completely reliant on set-pieces and long balls. Their only half-chance came from fighting for the second and third ball after a free-kick wasn’t cleared by the first header.
At the beginning of the second half I got a feeling Grayson became a bit more adventurous as Leeds were sending more players forward to press and contest for the loose balls after every hoof. This opened space up for the Arsenal wingers and both started influencing the game in their own way.
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn Arsene specifically instructed AOC to be more adventurous with his movement as the youngster drifted in regularly in the second half. Song and Arteta too joined the attack more often as Arsenal pushed for a goal. The Gunners created much better chances and forced a number of saves/blocks in the opening 20 minutes of the half.
With just over 20 minutes to go, Arsene took AOC and Chamakh off and introduced Theo and Henry. The patterns of play didn’t change significantly after the substitutions but there was hope that chances can be finished off better with these two on the pitch.
The King took ten minutes to settle the tie with a trademark finish. The intelligence of that run behind the Right Back, quality of the first touch, and deftness of the finish all re-established the class of the man.
Arsenal endured a nervy finish to the game as some of the players stopped moving and it became difficult to hold the ball. Leeds created two or three good chances but Szczesny was in the right place to keep them out.
Szczesny: Very good positioning and caught the ball well. Almost conceded a calamitous goal when he went all the way to the touchline only to clear the ball straight to an opponent.
Coquelin: Was aggressive in defence and worked the flank enthusiastically. Unfortunately, he seems to have stretched himself and will now miss a few weeks of football with a hamstring injury.
Yennaris: The youngster matched Coquelin’s aggression and attacked the ball intelligently. His positional sense was appreciable as were his tenacity and technical skills. Had a couple of nervy moments but that is to be expected.
Squillaci: Played a couple of iffy passes but was largely in control. Went close with a header.
Koscielny: Performed admirably in a physical duel, bordering on grappling, with the striker all day long. Was fairly composed on the ball but didn’t take too many risks in terms of venturing forward.
Miquel: Got into very interesting attacking positions and also tracked back energetically when caught up field. Looked impressive technically and wasn’t unnerved by the pressure towards the end. Can do better in the attacking areas. For instance, he should have scored or set a goal up when Arshavin found him in acres of space in the Leeds half late in the game.
The back five were mostly in control but conceded a few chances, especially at the end, when the team entered a patchy phase of play as the midfield and attackers seemed unclear about their roles. The ease with which McCormack and Forssell found room in the box was worrying but the Gunners did well to limit such instances.
Song: Had a pragmatic first half and a more influential second one. Picked up the assist with a delightful defence-splitting pass. Created some other chances as well. Could have done better with his shot at goal. Made a big contribution in defending the second balls.
Ramsey: Put in an excellent shift in the middle with a number of runs in the wide areas and the box. Also played a big part in pressing the visiting defenders. Seemed a bit overenthusiastic with his shooting and took a fraction too long over some of his passes in the final third. It was nice to see some of the flicks and tricks work out.
Arteta: Very confident on the ball, got involved in the attack in the second half and got into shooting positions in the box, some of his set-piece deliveries were good but could do with more consistency and better understanding with those in the box.
It was a typically dominant effort from the midfielders. They had to do more to support the defence and were also stretched in the attacking areas. On the whole it was a hard-working display that was efficient and effective, only just but that’s enough.
Oxlade-Chamberlain: Was somewhat anonymous in the first half but made a much bigger impact in the 20-odd minutes he got in the second half as he abandoned the flank and drifted all over the pitch. Some of his dribbles at pace were exciting but needs work on his decision making, finishing, and crossing.
Chamakh: I would love to know the number of chances he created with layoffs. A striker has to get into scoring positions but the Moroccan suffered on that front . Offered more in the second half when some balls were aimed at his head. Work rate was good and chased what seemed like a lost cause to good effect more than once.
Arshavin: Very hard-working display, ran at the full-back regularly but couldn’t really produce the finish or the killer ball despite a number of clever touches. Got into good positions to receive the ball and most of his first touches and turns were excellent.
Subs: Henry brought back memories of his heyday but also looked rusty at times. This role of an impact player will suit him the best in the first couple of weeks at least. Walcott put in a few good crosses but wasn’t very effective once Arsenal scored and lost their tactical bearings.
Wenger: Picked a fairly strong side, got the substitutions right, deserves credit for the quality of the youngsters’ performances. But in the end this was a game Arsenal should win so it was just a regular day at the office.Follow @goonerdesi