Mikel Arteta rested Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Lucas Torreira for this game, with Sokratis moving over to right back (Rob Holding returning to central defence) and Matteo Guendouzi coming in. Other changes saw Martinez play in goal and Reiss Nelson selected ahead of a sick Aubameyang. Arsenal were weaker specifically due to the changes in the defensive personnel, and with better finishing, Leeds should have been out of sight in the first half.
It was like the bad old days of Unai Emery with shots peppering in on the Gunners’ goal. Arsenal’s pressing game seemed to have gone to pot, their ability to hold the ball non-existent. Rob Holding continuously gave the ball away or played hospital passes. As Doktor Schneide texted me, “I wonder if there’s a more inappropriately named person in the sport than Holding. Every time he was on the ball he gave it away.” About the only positive thing you could say was that tactical fouling has become a key part of Arsenal’s armoury under Arteta. Well, if everyone else is doing it.
It was a shocker, with the return of boos at half-time, so many of Arsenal’s players peripheral. From what was said post-game, it sounds like Arteta read the riot act in the dressing room. Older readers might remember the ‘Sort it out, Georgie, Georgie, sort it out’ chant from the late 80s when the crowd had seen a poor opening 45 minutes from George Graham’s teams. There are similarities with Arteta’s approach and the situation he has arrived to.
Last night, the players responded, and the second half felt like a mirror image of the first, only Arsenal actually scored. To complete the GG analogy, it ended ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’. It wasn’t only the change in personnel that could have been responsible for the very slack first half though. Was it fatigue? Was it arrogance? (Leeds are very likely to be in the Premier League next season, so I’d hope not). Was it a mentality issue? Arsenal simply failed to impose themselves, and it was a reality check that one very good performance at home to Man Utd does not mean there isn’t a hell of a lot of work to do. Arteta’s team should have been eliminated by half-time last night.
The positive was that they turned it round, and the second half certaintly represented something of a masterclass. I’m at a loss to understand how the team were so poor initially though. Some old habits die hard. It felt like the forward players stopped making runs to receive the ball, the team not compact enough to play the quick triangle football that Arteta likes to see his team move the ball forward with. Granted, the right full-back can be a component in this, and I very much doubt we will see Sokratis there again. And how Torreira was missed in terms of his ability to snuff out danger. Guendouzi just isn’t the same type of player. It’s the reason Gilberto Silva needed to come to the club in 2002. Arsenal had won the double, but not settled on a central midfield partner for Patrick Vieira after the departure of Manu Petit in 2000. So Wenger tried Grimandi, Parlour and Lauren in there (the latter could have done the job in my view but ended up replacing Lee Dixon instead). With Gilberto, the balance was just right. Torreira’s no Gilberto, but he’s the closest we have in the current squad. Guendouzi is probably more of a Ray Parlour-type, which is why the crowd have a lot of time for him, in spite of his errors.
Still, Arsenal progress to the fourth round and a visit to Bournemouth, although in theory, the away section could be bigger than normal, assuming the 15% rule when it comes to allocation. For many, it will be a unique opportunity to watch the Gunners at Dean Court (or the Vitality if you prefer). And there is plenty for Mikel Arteta to dissect ahead of the visit to Selhurst Park on Saturday lunchtime.
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