Arsenal have booked their ticket in the FA Cup fourth round after edging past Leeds United 1-0 in a tense third round encounter.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side ran riot in the first-half and were by far the more dominant side, but ultimately failed to capitalise on their early superiority and went into the interval level with the hosts.
The Gunners seemed to awaken at half-time and entered the second-half with a revitalised energy and more intensity, culminating in Reiss Nelson scoring the only goal of the game and setting up a fourth round match against Bournemouth.
It was a tight game in north London but who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Marcelo Bielsa
There was an aura of anticipation leading up to this game regarding Leeds and whether Bielsa could coax the sort of performance out of his side that has seen them canter to the summit of English football’s second tier, and do so against one of the Premier League’s elite. The answer was an emphatic yes.
Not only did Leeds match the Gunners in the capital, but they were by far the better side for large parts of this game, notably in the first-half. Bielsa’s men played with more intensity, fluidity and rhythm in the opening 45 minutes, and laid bare the flaws of Mikel Arteta’s experimental three-man defence.
It has not come by chance that many of football’s finest tacticians have name-checked ‘El Loco’ as a key influence in shaping their philosophies. The likes of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone have all spoken in awe of the brilliance of Bielsa, and tonight highlighted exactly why the Argentine is so highly regarded.
Known for his obsessive, meticulous attention to detail, organisation and intensity, Leeds epitomised all those traits in the opening exchanges but, ultimately, the quality of Arsenal’s elite-level squad shone through in the end. Leeds were unable to replicate their first-half exploits after the break, but this was an insight into exactly what the South American enigma can bring to the Premier League next season should they gain promotion.
Loser: Rob Holding
With Calum Chambers suffering a season-ending injury last month, Rob Holding would have looked to his teammate’s shortcomings as an opportunity to impress his manager and force an inclusion in Arsenal’s starting XI. Unfortunately for the 24-year-old, he struggled to deal with the intensity of Leeds’ high press this evening and looked all at sea when trying to play out from the back.
As Arsenal looked to instigate attacking moves from the back and control the game, the Championship club deployed a high press which seemed to startle Arteta’s backline, with David Luiz and Holding both guilty of numerous aberrations and sloppy passes.
Holding has not had much playing time this season and is perhaps still finding his feet after a lengthy spell on the sidelines last campaign, but if he is to genuinely fight his way back into Arsenal’s first-team fold, then performances will need to be of a much higher standard than tonight’s showing.
Winner: Mikel Arteta
The days are still early under Arteta and some Arsenal fans remain sceptical that the club have genuinely unearthed Guardiola 2.0, but the Spaniard is so far doing a pretty good job of dispelling uncertainties and concerns around his appointment.
His Arsenal side were frail and exceedingly lacklustre in the first-half. It was an all too familiar story for those seated at the Emirates. However, Arteta showcased another bow to his string: an ability to motivate when the chips are down.
Leeds were breathtaking, scintillating, and – quite frankly – dominant in the first-half. Few could have predicted Arsenal storming out of the traps with the bit between their teeth after the interval, but that is exactly what happened.
Arsenal fans can now take solace in the fact that Arteta won’t stand for suboptimal. The Spaniard demonstrated his ability to motivate and turn the tide.
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Loser: Patrick Bamford
The former Chelsea striker saw plenty of the ball and navigated his way in dangerous positions, but just lacked that clinical edge and proficiency to breach Arsenal’s net. Patrick Bamford registered more shots than any player on the pitch (six), but only one of his attempts found the target. He will be kicking himself for not capitalising on Leeds’ early dominance and finding the back of the net.
Earmarked for future success during his early days at Stamford Bridge, Bamford was unable to break into Chelsea’s first team despite productive loan spells away from west London. He is now flourishing at Elland Road, but came up short tonight as he squandered multiple opportunities.
Bamford’s link up play was exceptional at times but his finishing left a lot to be desired and is perhaps why he is not bracketed in that upper echelon tier. If he is able to find a more prolific streak and clinical edge in the final third, then Bamford could yet become a 20-goals-a-season striker, but firing blanks when chances fall aplenty certainly won’t help in that quest for goalscoring supremacy.
Winner: Reiss Nelson
It was a difficult first-half for Arsenal’s fledgling forward, but Nelson was able to repay the faith shown in him by Arteta as he scored the decisive goal of this third round match. It wasn’t pretty, but in an encounter of fine margins, neither those on the pitch or in the stands will mind one bit how it came.
Arteta has provided Nelson an early chance to impress, with the incisive winger starting in his first two Premier League matches as Arsenal boss, but having been dropped for the Spaniard’s only league win – a 2-0 victory over Man Utd – there may have been concerns it would be a while until the 20-year-old started another match.
Reiss Nelson has scored his second senior goal for Arsenal with both of them coming in domestic cup competitions:
⚽️ vs. Nottingham Forest
⚽️ vs. Leeds
Deadlock broken. pic.twitter.com/BMfJ2GLXv9
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 6, 2020
However, Nelson was handed another opportunity by Arteta this evening, and while he struggled at times to thrive against Leeds’ well-drilled press, the Londoner showcased a few glimmers of his innate creativity and dribbling ability, while also scoring the only goal of the game.
Those of a red and white persuasion will now be hoping this goal can prove the catalyst in Nelson fulfilling his undoubted potential and cementing a more prominent and influential berth in Arsenal’s first team.