Mikel Arteta stayed true to his word and treated the FA Cup with more respect than you’d show your grandma at a Sunday lunch. He fielded a very strong team for Bielsa’s Leeds, though it was loaded with some oddities. He stuck with a back four that saw Sokratis as right back. His midfield had Xhaka and Matteo, which always scares me. He continued his run with Mesut and capped it with Pepe, Laca and Nelson.
We started off in appalling fashion. Our manager hilariously said after the game, “I’ve watched Leeds United a lot and they batter teams every 3 days,” and batter us they did. We were absolutely second best for the majority of the first half. Leeds pummeled us, they beat us to every ball and they didn’t give us time to turn out of our half. It was utterly embarrassing. We managed 3 attempts with 1 on target (they had 15 attempts at our goal, 5 on target).
Matteo Guendouzi looked frightened, he was awful on the ball, he did not know which way to turn or where to stand. He resorted to slipping into the back 4 like he’d been doing under Emery. He wasn’t helped, Rob Holding has gone from looking like peak Baresi, to Pascal Cygan after 5 beers, he was very rusty and struggled with his passing. Then up front, Lacazette looked sluggish and low on confidence. Our players were bunched up, we didn’t fight, and we forgot all the good things from the last 3 games. The only bright spark was some good keeping from Martinez.
There are always going to be lots of questions of the manager when things are going badly, the one we wanted to know last night was whether he could motivate ‘this’ group of players to come out fighting. Well, Lacazette said, ‘he shouted a lot.’ Which always moistens the loins of British fans who think a good hairdryer treatment can solve any motivation issue.
Were the Brits wrong to dampen? Absolutely not. Brexit means Brexit and shouting at players appears to mean they pull their finger out, the dirty slaaaags.
The players put Leeds on the back foot right away. We became the protagonists. The shape was much improved, the midfield moved quicker to close down danger/angles, and the team worked really hard to get Ozil and Pepe on the ball. The German, in particular, made the most of the ball, he created some great opportunities, every touch had intent and seemed to dent the confidence of a tiring Leeds side.
The breakthrough came from some dogged work from Pepe. He slinked away from a pile-up with Douglas just inside Leeds half. The Ivorian reminds me of a fast Kanu sometimes, I don’t quite know how he’s staying on his feet, but it works and he escapes. He powered through the middle, released Lacazette out wide, he quickly slipped the ball into the box, it deflected and Reiss Nelson was on hand to bundle home. Not the tidiest of goals, but a confidence jab for all three involved.
That goal really took the steam out of anything Leeds could offer. We continued the half with the same intensity. I thought the fans were in fine voice, they kept the boys going with their singing. Arteta was able to bring on Gabriel, who looks the absolute business. His intensity is going to be a game-changer for Arsenal next year.
The game finished 1-0. We somehow kept another clean sheet. The team passed another test, they can be motivated, they do want to play for the manager, and the FA Cup could be a real opportunity this season.
Leeds is a bruising team to play against, the squad underestimated them, and they nearly paid the price. It’s a lesson learned. Mikel is good, but he’s never going to shake old habits in under a month.
Fans have to accept that finding consistency is going to be very hard this season. There will some great moments, but there are also going to be some horrible ones that might leave you questioning whether we have the right man in charge. We have to work through it, this is a proper manager with ideas that will take a year to start delivering consistency… but when they land, it’s going to be beautiful.
For now, let’s hope the lessons of today were learned. At the highest level, even against Championship sides, you cannot afford to take your foot off the gas. Leeds has a tiny squad that’s been somewhat out of form and they dominated us so badly in the first half, we only managed 37.5% possession.
Arsenal are still weak when pressed hard, we’ve known that for years, we’ll have to get better there. Xhaka looked really poor in the first half, but he was a different beast in the second. Matteo looked ready for the scrap heap in the first 45, the second he looked like a man who was told his family were in the boot of a car with their lives dependent on him playing like a man possessed. Everyone looked better when they moved towards the Arteta instruction pack and that can only be a positive for his authority as a manager moving forward.
Next up is Sheffield United. A tough game against a coach that will have watched what Bielsa did with intrigue. Chris Wilder will have a plan, we’ll have to rise to the occasion again and hope the squad wants to continue to prove the doubters wrong.
What did you think? Let us know in the comments!
P.S. I don’t normally care much for press conferences, but man, I love listening to the clarity of his comms. He knows exactly what’s going on, very refreshing. Also great to know Auba is committed.