A gritty display from a determined Arsenal side saw Mikel Arteta’s charges win through 1-0 against Leeds United after a second half Reiss Nelson goal put Arsenal ahead on 55 minutes.
The result was nothing more than the doughty Gunners deserved despite a superb showing from a Leeds side surely destined for a long-awaited return to the top flight at the end of this season.
Story of the match
Mikel Arteta spoke before the match of wanting Arsenal to become ‘addicted’ to the FA Cup. The Gunners certainly have pedigree, winning three of the last six trophies to make it a record 13 in total.
Arteta’s selection policy reflected this by opting for a strong starting XI including Alex Lacazette as captain along with Mesut Ozil, Nicolas Pepe and Granit Xhaka all starting from the team which so spectacularly eclipsed Manchester United on the first day of the decade. The new Arsenal boss looked to dispatch Leeds at the first time of asking.
The north London giants have always had a special relationship with the world’s oldest knockout trophy, a fact which certainly contributed to the cracking Emirates atmosphere at kick-off. That included around 8,000 visitors from west Yorkshire – some of who appeared to have been prolonging their New Year’s celebrations.
The match commenced at 7.56pm, a nod to raising awareness of mental health, a nationwide initiative which must be heartily applauded – as, it has to be said, were Championship leaders Leeds for their sprightly start, with a series of forays into the Gunners box.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side came into the match with confidence as befits a side with the Premier League very much in their sights. They were captained by a face familiar to Arsenal fans in Luke Ayling. The Lambeth-born 28-year-old right back was part of the young guns 2008/09 victorious FA Youth Cup winning side but failed to make a first team appearance. The best he could manage was a seat on the bench as an unused substitute for a dead Champions League rubber against Olympiacos.
The defender nearly saw his side take the lead in the 13th minute after a fierce Jack Harrison strike from the edge of the area prompted a block from Emi Martinez. With the Gunners failing to clear their lines a short while later, a left-footed shot from Patrick Bamford thudded against the bar. Arsenal’s Argentine shot-stopper was beaten with Leeds roared on by their vociferous travelling support.
Leeds lively number 10 Ezgjan Alioski fired a low drive across Martinez’s goal in the 23rd minute before Harrison aimed an effort at goal shortly afterwards following a flowing move to confirm their dominance of the opening stages.
Arsenal finally fashioned a chance of their own after Ozil shrugged off abuse from the massed ranks of the travelling support to flight a corner onto the head of David Luiz, who nodded narrowly wide.
Alioski then outjumped Sokratis to angle a header which Martinez did well to keep out past the half hour mark in an absorbing contest which showed Leeds deserve to be in the Premier League – and Arteta’s Arsenal are far more solid and tenacious in the heart of battle. Both facts were heartening for the truth is the top table of English football misses a passionate club the size of Leeds.
As referee Anthony Taylor blew for half time after an absorbing 45 minutes, two things stood out. One; Bielsa’s Leeds are ready for the Premier League, and, two; Arteta has instilled a more durable nature to the Gunners backline in tough games.
As the second half commenced Leeds fans chorused to their Arsenal counterparts: ‘We forgot that you were here’, a tune that could have been applied to their defence after Lacazette’s free-kick clipped keeper Illan Meslier’s bar and over moments after the restart.
It was only a temporary reprieve as the impressive Lacazette crossed for the predatory Nelson. Via a crucial deflection, the talented youngster slotted home past Meslier to make it 1-0 to Arsenal – much to the delight of a rapturous Emirates ten minutes after the interval.
An agricultural challenge from Leeds number 43, Mateusz Klich, on Xhaka prompted an angry response from leader Lacazette. While Klich deserved his yellow card it was heartening to see the solidarity shown to his stricken colleague from the Arsenal captain. Arteta replaced Nelson with Gabriel Martinelli moments later, to a resounding round of applause from the Emirates crowd.
In a frenetic final 20 minutes left back Barry Douglas fired over the bar from a free kick as the visitors attempted to draw level. Substitute Helder Costa was held back by Sead Kolasinac, who was booked by Taylor.
Ozil was then withdrawn for Joe Willock. The German earned his ovation for a far stronger second half display, as Arteta’s men showed their steely side in the second period with a welcome show of channelled aggression.
As the clock ticked down to a date at Bournemouth in the fourth round Arsenal showed grit to go with their undoubted flair and new found endeavour - a display of character if not free flowing football that had the home support purring in appreciation. Whisper it, but Arsenal under Arteta are no longer a soft touch.