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Has anyone seen his cojones? What? No one is looking? No one cares?

We welcome Watford to the Grove on Sunday for a late lunchtime kickoff. 

When we last saw the Hornets chez nous we sent them away from the yellow brick road, taking their hearts on the final day of the season with a 3-2 victory in front of covid-empty stands.  Having spent a successful year in the Championship, they won promotion and jettisoned the odious, tiny dancer called Deeney, testicularly lacking as he turned out to be.  And like a candle in the wind they’ve gotten rid of the manager that got them back to the Premier League, Xisco Munoz, replacing him in early October with Claudio Ranieri.  Strange, that: they binned Munoz as Watford languished in 14th place…and with two losses and a win Ranieri has shown his Fulham form rather than the touch he had at Leicester (early days, I know), bringing Watford all the way to 16th in the table, 3 points off the relegation zone.

I don’t expect Watford to score many goals against us, unless something really bad happens.  They haven’t been prolific this season, their 5-2 result at Everton notwithstanding; they’ve been held scoreless in 6 of their 10 league games (I guess that’s why they call it the blues, eh?).  Josh King scored a hat trick for them at Goodison Park; he shares offensive duties with Emmanuel Dennis, who returns after a 5-yellow-card suspension (5 cards in 10 games, what?).  Dennis provided a goal and two assists at Everton, but their real dangerman is Ismaïla Sarr, a Rocketman of a winger who can also slot up front depending upon which formation the Tinkerman decides.  I can’t see how leftovers from the little team up the road will give us troubles, but Sissoko, Cleverley, and Rose could all be in contention to start.

What of Arsenal?  The team that saw Watford to relegation has seen much turnover;  1/3 of the players that saw the pitch are gone or on loan, one is injured, and of the day’s starters possibly only Auba and Laca will retain their place.  I fully expect we’ll see a team close to, if not identical to, the team that started against Leicester, though if Kieran Tierney passes his late fitness test he could be in contention to start ahead of Tavares.  Still:

Ramsdale

Tomi – White – Gabi — Tavares

Partey — Sambi

Saka – Laca — ESR

Auba

And a bench of Leno, KT3, Holding, AMN, Mo’Neny, Mø, Pépé, Gabi, and Eddie.

After a seemingly interminable week, let’s have a reminder of where we currently sit: riding an 9-game unbeaten streak, we’ve risen up the table from the bottom (after our first three games) to our current position of 6th, only 3 points out of 3rd.  Since the dark day of our 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City we’ve won 7 and drawn 2 in all competitions; most encouraging, since we tonked the little club up the road we seem to have found a way to play that’s incisive, defensive, and energetic all at once, despite the draws at Palace and Brighton.  We’ve also advanced to the quarter-finals of the Carabao cup (even as Watford were knocked out by Stoke in the round previous).

Will we see the resurgent Arsenal of the past nine games show up for the home fans, or will we revert to our form at the start of the season?  I hope we start the game on the front foot and leave Watford to fall quickly into the relegation places.  While we should go into the game confident, I want our defense to keep the gritty, organized shape they’ve begun to show, so there are no stings in the tail.

The ‘Holics Pound

I expect Captain Fantastic (Auba) and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (Laca) to share the spoils of a 3-0 victory with Smith Rowe, saying so much even Sir Elton will be singing a sad song.  That is available at 11s; or take a bit of a chance and punt for 4-0 to the Arsenal, on 17-1.  A backup punt against a nil draw can be had at 20-1!  Any of those results would leave us 10 games unbeaten, an apt way to celebrate the boss’ 100th game in charge of Arsenal. Even then I’d not expect any previously vocal Arsenal supporters who’d thought perhaps “Arteta Out” was on tune to apologise…because sorry does seem to be the hardest word.

Enjoy the game, every Arsenal fan that goes.  COYG!

Ninth against tenth in the table, this match would be an excellent barometer of our progress. After three disappointing defeats at the beginning of the season, we had not lost in our subsequent six games but every one of these six games was against a small club that never wins trophies or hasn’t done so for decades. This was a match against another competitor for the top six. A true test of our mettle.

Despite rumours of infection in the Arsenal camp, Mikel Arteta started the same XI that started like a whirlwind against Villa: Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tavares; Sambi, Partey; Saka, Lacazette, ESR; Aubameyang. 

Before the kick-off, wreaths were laid at the edge of the pitch by both coaches to commemorate the fallen in the world’s wars. The King Power Stadium appeared to be spectacularly bedecked with giant red poppies against a white background as fans held up white, black and red cards whilst a bugler played the last post and falling poppies appeared on the giant screens. A very impressive tribute.

Within a minute Arsenal made a declaration of intent. From a high throw in on the right, won as a result of Aubamyang’s high press on Soyunko near the touchline, Saka ran with the ball into the Lesta box, played a one-two with Laca and played a dangerous ball across the 6-yard box which was accidentally touched towards goal by Amartey but stopped on the line by a desperate Schmeichel. Just a minute or so later, White strode confidently through Lesta’s midfield after the ball broke loose from a coming together between Sambi and Soumaré and laid the ball off to Aubameyang on his left. Auba ran directly towards the box but his cross was blocked for a corner. ESR’s dangerous inswinger was cleared by Vardy for a corner on the other side.

Saka’s corner from the right was met by Gabriel towards the front post and his glancing header flew past Schmeichel, into the far side of the net . 

0-1 Gabriel, 5 mins

Shortly after the restart, Auba ran through on the left but his firm shot towards Schmeichel’s near post was blocked by the keeper. 

Once again, we had a fluid front four with Auba largely playing up the middle, Laca patrolling across the field behind him, showing his strength in possession and linking well with runners on both flanks. ESR was drifting left to combine with Tavares whilst Saka and Tomiyasu probed on the right. When Lesta attacks broke down, we played the ball out of defence confidently evading Lesta’s press with ease and moved the ball swiftly through midfield. The Arsenal fans were in fine voice whilst the home crowd was very quiet, apart from frequent disappointed groans. Quite like the good old days!

In the tenth minute, after a nice run, slip and pull back by Saka, Partey fired a 20 yarder towards goal but it was saved by Schmeichel. At least it was on target. Thomas’ aim is definitely improving.

Lesta’s first threat ony came after ten minutes when Maddison went down under White’s challenge outside our box but he fired the centrally-positioned free kick from 20 yards into the wall and punted the rebound straight to Ramsdale.

Arsenal were moving the ball quickly and confidently through midfield with excellent one touch interplay involving Partey, Sambi, Tomiyasu and Tavares. A very different looking midfield to the lumbering and laborious machine we have had to put up with in recent times.

In this period of the game, when Lesta won possession Arsenal generally regained the ball swiftly. From one such moment, Tavares received the ball inside our half, went on a run past two Lesta players, shaped to shoot on the edge of their box then laid it off to Lacazette on his right. Lacazette’s first touch pass across the box to Aubameyang near the far post was cut out by Evans and turned away for Arsenal’s fourth corner in the first 15 minutes. Arsenal were keeping Lesta penned back and Partey and Sambi were interchanging and recycling the ball smoothly and swiftly. When one Lesta foray broke down, Partey found Saka on the right running into the Lesta half. Saka squared to Lacazette at the edge of the box who moved right to make space for a shot but was tackled. The ball broke fortunately for ESR to fire it into the net from 18 yards. Lesta players looked as shell shocked as Villa’s players did last week.

0-2 ESR, 18 mins

It was only after 20 minutes of total Arsenal control and 60% possession that the Foxes had any prolonged period of possession but they failed to threaten the Arsenal goal. On the other hand, Arsenal’s high press was bothering the Lesta defence and midfield, rendering service to their forwards virtually non-existent much to the locals’ annoyance. However, after the halfway point of the first half, the opposition appeared to win more time and space on the ball and attempted some clever through balls in behind our defenders. However, these were confidently mopped up as a growing understanding between White and Gabriel was repeatedly displayed. 

Worryingly, after 21 minutes after a through ball from Lesta had rolled harmlessly through to Ramsdale, Gabriel went down in our box with no one around him. It appeared to be a right knee problem but happily he managed to carry on after treatment with the 21st century equivalent of the magic sponge.

Once again Ramsdale’s distribution of the ball from feet was impressive but as a result of a solitary misdirected effort the keeper had to leap at full length to turn a long range shot from Iheanacho round his right post. As Lesta began to be more assertive, Tomiyasu then made a vital interception to a through ball on the edge of our box as Vardy or some other rat faced varmint lurked .

From the half-hour mark Lesta pressed us back but our defensive shape of 4-4-2 worked well to confound them with lively interceptions and firm challenges and blocks protecting our goal and setting up counter attacks whilst Tavares and Tomiyasu were prominent in turning defence into attack and Sambi and Partey moved smothly and swiftly through the gears.

Our back four then sat deep with the midfield four patrolling in front of them and Lacazette and Aubameyang harassing opposition players recycling the ball just inside our half. Arsenal’s defensive organisation ensured that there was no space behind their back four for Vardy to run onto a through ball in his usual manner.

On 41 minutes as Lesta continued to dominate possession and kept up the pressure, Maddison went down on the edge of our D after challenging for a high ball with White. As Maddison lined up the free-kick one could see that the low winter sun was shining straight into Ramsdale’s eyes. The lad could have done with a traditional goalkeeeper’s cap (Christmas present from Bob?). Despite that, Ramsdale pulled off a world-class save, pushing up onto the bar Maddison’s curling shot to the side of the goal furthest from the keeper. Ramsdale then jumped up to block Evans’ close-range strike on the rebound from near his left post. The ball rebounded from the post to strike Ramsdale’s knee and spin along the goal-line to be cleared by Gabriel. Our keeper had earned that slice of luck. Top class goalkeeping! Apparently Peter Schmeichel tweeted that it was one of the best saves he had seen in many years.

The half ended with Lesta desperately pushing for the goal that would get them back into the game.

HT Lesta 0 – 2 Arsenal

A fine first half performance by the Arsenal, once again starting the match like a rocket and taking a deserved 2-0 lead but thanks to two fine saves by Ramsdale avoiding being hauled back to 2-2. Could we build on that first half and take all three points?

Lesta brought on Barnes and Lookman for Amartey and Iheanacho at the beginning of the second half converting to a 4-3-3 pushing Vardy through the middle with the subs on either side and hoping to challenge Arsenal with more pace and more width much as Villa had attempted, not without some success, to change the balance of our game against them last week.

In the early knockings of the second half, a brisk move through our midfield gears forced Lesta into a last-ditch tackle on ESR sprinting into their box suggesting that Arsenal were still prepared to play on the front foot. However, the Foxes then dominated possession and kept probing at our defensive lines and pushing balls through for Vardy. Barnes began to make some dangerous runs down our right flank. Lesta’s Thomas found himself free on the ball inside our box but his low shot flew past Ramsdale’s left post. Seconds later Gabriel had to clear a cut back from Lookman towards Vardy.

At 57 minutes, Lacazette was replaced by Ødegaard. Could the Norwegian match the Frenchman’s exemplary work rate both with and without the ball? Yes, he could.

A backheel from Vardy found Lookman running into the left side of our box but Ramsdale spread himself and blocked the firm drive at his near post when a goal looked on. 

At 59 minutes, your correspondent felt a Lesta goal was coming and promptly thereafter Tielemans’ shot from their right was turned for a corner.  As Ramsdale went up for a high cross, Evans came in and kicked out at the keeper, annoying the Arsenal custodian. Nasty! Promptly thereafter Ramsdale had to dive at the feet of Barnes, rushing into the six-yard box with a chance to score. It was all Lesta as the hour came up.

A period of nice interplay on our right gave our defenders some time to draw breath and seemed an early sign of Arsenal asserting themselves offensively again. It ended in Ødegaard’s heels being clipped but the free kick came to naught.

Yet we were to be treated to a further spell of excellent Arsenal defending and goalkeeping. A Vardy header from a Tielemans cross flashed wide but Arsenal began to assert themselves again. Evans wrestled Aubameyang to the ground as he turned onto a long through ball as the Arsenal defence cleared their lines. Was that a DOGSO? Not according to the VAR team. Then a Saka free kick to Aubameyang wide on the right was directed across the box just over Partey’s head and cleared for a corner. That corner resulted in a goal line clearance from an Aubameyang shot at the far post. Saka then had an attempt deflected wide as it became clear that Arsenal had weathered the Foxes’ storm unscathed. By the 70th minute, Arsenal had rediscovered their attacking drive but Saka’s attempt to curl the ball into the top corner went well wide.  For a spell Arsenal were camped on the edge of the Lesta box.

In a final attempt to change the course of the game Rogers sent Daka on for Maddison in the 71st minute. A speculative Tielemans cross was met by Barnes’ head in the centre of our box but though it beat Ramsdale, it drifted wide of the far post. Vardy was then booked for stamping on White as they clashed in the Arsenal box.

With 15 minutes left it seemed likely that the sting had largely been taken out of Lesta’s revival and Arsenal rediscovered their slick ‘pass and move’ style. At 77 minutes the cry of “49, 49 undefeated” rang around the King Power Stadium. Yet some work was still required to secure the victory. Somehow, Barnes got behind Tomiyasu, goal-side in the six-yard box onto a ball from Vardy but Ramsdale blocked his near post shot.

Lesta kept pushing forward, drawing clearances, firm challenges and brave blocks from Arsenal defenders who hunted in packs to close down ball-carriers. Pépé replaced Saka with 6 minutes left and in the game’s dying minutes Arsenal rediscovered their high press as Lesta ‘s momentum faltered. On 89 minutes ESR was replaced by Kolasinac. In Oliver’s 5 added minutes Arsenal saw the game out by playing some lovely passing moves and one touch football around midfield without threatening the Lesta goal or letting Lesta threaten ours. 

“We all follow the Arsenal over land and sea….and Lesta” rang out as the game reached its final minute.

FT: Lesta 0-2 Arsenal

Seven games unbeaten in the PL. Fifth in the table at the final whistle, before the weekend’s other games are played. If the remaining matches provide the correct outcomes, we will still be fifth on Monday evening.

It was great to see Gabriel and Ramsdale bonding with the fans at the end. The keeper spotted a kid, perched on his dad’s shoulders, wearing an Arsenal goalkeeper’s kit. Ramsdale ran over, gave the boy his shirt, gave another boy his boots, gave someone else his gloves and then ran back to the tunnel in his stocking soles. The ungenerous fella kept his shorts on!

That was an outstanding performance by everyone in an Arsenal shirt and a superb result. On one hand, we saw, in possession, a slick, fleet-footed and incisive Arsenal attack and off the ball, playing a high press to stifle Lesta’s offensive options and regain possession swiftly. On the other hand, when Lesta threw everything at us to get back into the game, we saw a well organised, determined and stolid defence with all ten outfield players engaged and working their socks off and a superb keeper in top form. 

Above all we saw exactly why Mikel Arteta wanted the club to buy Aaron Ramsdale. Unquestionably, that victory required a supreme team effort but to my mind, there was one key ingredient. Aaron won us that game today and more than deserved his MotM award.

They all earned their money today, as my old mate Steve T observed.

Onward.

Since the Foxes had returned to the English top-tier football we have had quite a few memorable victories against them. Even in their surprising title winning campaign in 2015-16 we won against them home and away, the home victory courtesy of a last minute header from the substitute Danny Welbeck, and that result in early Spring raising a glimpse of hope among some Arsenal fans of a genuine attempt at winning the league, only to see us falling behind rapidly towards the final months to end ten points behind Leicester, but still of course managing to welcome a certain Saint back in the North London sun (or rain). It was also our the then capital Mikel Arteta’s farewell season, there were whispers in the air that one day we may see him back at the Arsenal, prowling the touchline and putting mannerless journalists and players alike in their place by the sheer force of that intense stare.      

Of all these victories my favorite was the come-from-behind 3-1 at home in October 2018, at Mikel’s fellow Basque Emery’s first season. It was at that early stretch of Unai’s time when the results were going very well (22 unbeaten or something like that) and in between we had played some sumptuous football dispelling any fear of losing our identity of innovative, attacking football. Here is a highlight of all the three sumptuous goals, for those willing to indulge in a bit of nostalgia: https://youtu.be/TyE3cP27VoY .

As wonderful that performance was, it is also a lucid reminder of how results and performances in football can change very quickly, how complacency and lack of focus can very quickly derail a campaign, and how only a ceaseless desire for improving all aspects of performance from one match to the next is essential to earn the rights to fight at the top of the table.

After a poor start to this season Arteta’s Arsenal has started to show a degree of resilience and application that raises the possibility of an upward movement on the league table, but only if that resilience and applications are maintained consistently, which then would offer the kind of strong basis of self-belief across the squad to facilitate the creativity and skills — that we all know to be present in this team — to flourish.  

These noon-time away matches haven’t been particularly kind to Arsenal in the recent years. Even though Leicester is yet to show last season’s peak form they would present quite a difficult challenge to this very young Arsenal squad. Difficult, but not insurmountable, and I am hopeful that the memories of their own courage, commitment and discipline against Villa last weekend will give them the motivation and composure they need.  We did win away against Leicester last season, twice! The second of those two wins, a 3-1 victory in February earlier this year, came courtesy of goals from David Luiz, Lacazette (a penalty), and Pépé. The Brazilian maverick of the flowing locks is now plying his trade back home in Rio in the Flamengo colors, Pépé is unlikely to start (but a goal or two coming off the bench would be very nice, thank you), and it would be intriguing whether Mikel retains Lacazette in the team and leaves last weekend’s starting eleven and shape unchanged or if he makes alterations, if only to tactically outmaneuver his art connoisseur counterpart. My guess is that in a feisty away encounter against a high pressing team he would like to use Laca’s combativeness, leadership, and also to use his excellent understanding with captain Aubameyang to create central overload in the opposition penalty box which can then be exploited by the speed and skills our two Hale End heroes.   

Assuming Tierney would still not be risked as he is yet to fully recover (as far as we are given to understand), I think we will start the same starting eleven as last weekend. I am of course also assuming that Benjamin White has fully recovered from whatever knocks he had received midweek, and the stomach bug that is apparently going around in the Arsenal camp hasn’t sidelined any more players.

Ramsdale

Tomiyasu – White – Gabriel – Tavares

Saka – Partey – Lokonga – ESR

Aubameyang –  Lacazette

I would gladly take last season’s 3-1 victory, giving us a moderately respectable 17 points from 10 games, but any victory would do. A clean sheet would be nice too, if only to strengthen the belief, confidence and camaraderie of the back five. Enjoy the match everyone!

The Gaffer will be justifiably pleased at the result this evening. After making nine changes, the performance was always of secondary concern here. The goal tonight was, very simply, to get through the tie, while taking the least out of potential starters against Leicester this weekend.

Fortunately for the players who played tonight, the disappointment of their likely absence from the Leicester game was somewhat mitigated by the kind gesture of Leeds Utd, who played this evening’s match in Leicester kits. Nice touch.

For Arteta, who is sometimes accused of being too proscriptive in the way he choreographs his team, it must have been a supreme pleasure to see his most audaciously planned tactic yet bear fruition…

After having told the lads to keep it tight for the first half, he waited until ten minutes into the second half and a corner for his team, before giving old-school reggae DJ Ben ‘Jammin’ White the sneaky signal to pull up and feign an injury. This, as planned, meant that Leicester Leeds did not pay much attention to Calum Chambers as he came on to the pitch. Little did they know that, far from being a hasty substitute for a better player, he was the Boss’s secret attacking weapon.

Pepe, meanwhile, had gone to elaborate lengths to trick the opposition into thinking he was not dangerous enough to mark. Barely ten minutes had passed before he lost the ball by tripping over himself, so deeply had he gone into his method. His commitment was supreme, and they totally fell for his performance of ineptitude.

And thus, the stage was set.

ESR played in a good corner. True to form, our entire team treated the ball as though the young man had just smeared it in dogshit, keeping well away from it as it swung invitingly into the box. Pepe, however, pulled away smartly into space at the back post, and the genius of his performance up to that point could not have been clearer, as the Leeds defence summarily ignored him.

The Ivorian headed the ball into exactly the right space for someone to attack it. And, who would be there to finish a deviously scripted move straight from the playbook of our wily Spanish boss than Mr Deadly himself, Calum ’23 seconds’ Chambers? 

Now that’s what I call Artetaball!

Seriously, though, it was a pleasing result that we should not take for granted. But, beyond qualification for a quarter final, we didn’t gain much more, or learn much we did not know from tonight.

What we saw:

Leno is a good shot-stopper but flaps and punches at balls Ramsdale would catch. He is a good keeper but I don’t see him taking his spot back. He made a couple of smart stops tonight – exactly what I would expect from a good goalie, who is no longer the best at our club.

Elneny is a decent, honest pro. He ain’t great, though. AMN is a player with quality, but he doesn’t have the positional discipline to play CM against tougher opposition than we saw tonight. After a decent opening 15 minutes, a midfield of the pair of them struggled to impose itself on a decent Leeds outfit, but not a great one. Kalvin Phillips is a good player, mind – I’d love to see him next to Partey in our midfield, although I’ll not be holding my breath.

Kola is Kola. Nothing more to add, m’Lord.

Cedric whipped in a few excellent corners. And, from one of them, KOLA HEADED THE BALL AT THE GOAL!

It has been ages since we won a header from one of our own corners. We don’t usually even bother challenging for them. We seem to turn into a team of twitchers, binos at the ready as we relish in the sight of a Greater-Crested Inswinger in its natural habitat. It was a rare treat for us fans to see someone actually get their head on one.

Cedric also hit one corner out of play, and generally showed what most of the nine replacements did tonight, namely, that they aren’t pushing for a first team spot.

ESR worked hard and is becoming an on-field leader. He oozes class in everything he does. (Except when he kicks the ball past everyone on his team and off for a throw in. But then he looks so unconcerned and just gets on with it that the class factor seems to be straight back in play. Top lad.)

Pepe was frustrating. And then he got the assist for the breakthrough goal. Typical. A bit dodgy, but very effective. Less of the former, more of the latter, please (said every Gooner for the last three years!)

Eddie Nketiah was very quiet, but he scooped Sky’s MOTM award for scoring our second goal in a passage of play both sublime and ridiculous.

He raced on to a slightly short backwards header and, with a beautiful first touch, he lifted it over the keeper. As the goalie and defence ran back at him, he ran past them all and, with a second touch God would have been proud of, he controlled his lob in such a way that he took it straight towards goal from a tight angle. At that point he seemed to have used up all his quality touches, so he endured a nervous moment when he thought he had missed an absolute sitter after doing all the hard work. Fortunately for us all, despite shinning the ball woefully when it would have been better to, y’know, kick it with his foot, he breathed a sigh of relief as the ball trickled over the line to put the match beyond Leeds.

It was good to see him on the scoresheet, but personally I’d try to give Balogun more game time as I don’t think Eddie has a future at the club. However, he apparently works hard in training and has a good attitude. I respect him for that, and I respect Arteta for sticking to his guns about giving playing time to those that earn it, so I’m glad he took his chance tonight. And it is probably wise to show everyone in the squad very clearly that hard work and a good attitude are rewarded. Fair play to the Boss.

Gabi was a bit rusty, but it is hard to judge him when he had Kola and a quiet Eddie around him to link up with tonight. He showed some flashes of why he is a player that fans are so excited about, although he needs more game time to get back into the form he showed before the injury that kept him out for so long.

Generally speaking, the game was low on quality and not worth too much rehashing. We started well, Leeds came back into ascendancy and probably just about got the better of the first half. In the second half they began to tire, and we made the most of a couple of decent situations to stop the game becoming attritional and, instead, to hold them at arm’s length as we ran out comfortable winners.

One further observation is how the narrative around the club is swinging wildly at the moment, based on not much.

According to the caprices of the media and its inbred ‘social’ cousin: we were shit at the start of the season. Then we got better. Then we were great after the Spurs result. Yet, we were back to square one after Brighton, and worse after Palace.

Jamie Carragher has never been so full of praise for Arsenal as he was when discussing our performance against Villa on Friday. Yet, even then, he said multiple times how he thought that, if we had lost that game, the pressure would have been right back on Arteta after two draws.

Now, we are magically on an ‘eight match unbeaten run’ and everything is rosy again.

Until, inevitably, we get a disappointing result and people start losing their shit. The media narrative around our club is bonkers. It is almost like they don’t believe any of it, and simply string it out to get people to click on the crap they write.

What is great to see is that the people in this bar, and, it appears, the vast, vast majority of matchday fans, are not going in for this constant seesawing of opinion, and are instead settling in to see how this young team develops and grows together. Again tonight, it was possible, even through the telly, to hear the home support giving the team plenty to feed off. We are building more unity between the club and fans, something we have not had enough of in recent years, and the whole club is starting to come together around an exciting project.

However, on a night like tonight, I don’t think we need do more than applaud a committed effort from everyone involved, take the result, and get ready for the next one. Forwards!

Have a good one, holics. 

Embed from Getty Images

Arsenal take on fellow premier league outfit Leeds United in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup at the Emirates on Tuesday night. While the Gunners are fresh from an excellent 3-1 victory over Aston Villa, the Yorkshire side had to contend with a 1-1 draw at home to Wolves thanks to an injury-time equaliser from the spot from Rodrigo. 

Arsenal come into this cup fixture unbeaten in all competitions since the end of August, a run of eight games, six of those in the league. Leeds now has just one league win in nine games leaving them floundering in 17th place, hovering precariously above the relegation zone. Second season syndrome perhaps? The Leeds faithful will hope not, although they only have to look at their Yorkshire rivals, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United, both of whom stayed up in their first season in the top flight before finishing rock bottom in the second. However, Leeds is always a dangerous side as we saw last season. Last season the Gunners were lucky to come away from Elland Road with a point after the home side hit the woodwork three times and carved out plenty of opportunities. You might remember we also finished that game with ten men after Pepe was sent off following an altercation with Egan Allioski. The return fixture was a much happier affair for Mikel Arteta’s side as a Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang hat trick helped us to a 4-2 victory on Valentines Day. 

We have endured many fierce and not so fierce encounters with Leeds over the years. In 2002 we made history fielding nine black players for a league encounter at Elland Road (Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Lauren, Kolo Toure, Vieira, Gilberto, Wiltord, Henry and Kanu) as we ran out 4-1 winners.  This game also saw us break Nottingham Forest’s then record of 22 away games without defeat and Chesterfield’s record, held since 1929/30 season, of scoring in 47 consecutive league games. A prefiguring of the extraordinary feats achieved in the following season, if only we had known it. And in the Invincible season there was another memorable encounter, this time at Highbury, with Thierry Henry at his electrifying best scoring four goals to help us to a 5-0 win as we cantered our way to the title and the only golden Premier League trophy ever awarded. While we were celebrating making history, Leeds fans were grieving relegation from the top flight despite being Champions League semi-finalists only four years previously. Little did they know it would be sixteen years before their return. Despite their exile from the Premier League, we still seemed to draw them regularly in cup competitions. In 2011 they gave us a scare in the third round of the FA Cup where a last gasp Fabregas penalty forced a replay as we avoided an embarrassing early exit. We ran out comfortable 3-1 winners in the replay in Yorkshire. Coincidently we faced them at the same stage the following season in 2012. An otherwise forgettable encounter was then launched into the archives when Thierry Henry, returning for a loan spell from New York Red Bulls, came on as a substitute and it was only a few minutes before he rolled back the years as he collected a Bergkampesque through ball from Alex Song, opened his body and curled the ball into the far corner. 

As far as the team selection goes we can expect a mostly changed side from the eleven that eased pass Aston Villa so impressively. You would expect to see Bernd Leno in goal, having lost his place as first choice ‘keeper to Aaron Ramsdale. Then it will probably be Cedric at right back, a centre back pairing of Rob Holding and Mari. At left back it gets interesting as it could feasibly be any one of Nuno Tavares, Tierney or even Kolasinac. Given that Tierney may still be shaking off his supposedly bruised ankle and it is Premier League opposition we’re up against, I would expect to see Nuno at left back following his very impressive performance on Friday. In midfield we will probably see a pivot of Elneny and Maitland-Niles, with Odegaard in the number ten role. On the left you would hope to see Gabriel Martinelli get a run out after being restricted to substitute appearances since the Chelsea game. On the right flank Pepe should start with Eddie Nketiah up front, the Englishman having spent six months on loan at Leeds at the start of the 2019/20 season. 

So that would rack up ten changes from the side that beat Villa so convincingly, while still being a very strong second-string side capable of beating another premier league side comfortably. Gone are the days where Wenger would use the league cup as a chance to field a starting eleven that looked like a GCSE English class.  But now that European qualification is no longer a given, we have no choice but to take it seriously. 

COYG!

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