I believe I have some very real fears and trepidation about today’s game at Elland Road. The preparation the Arsenal players have had in the build up to this hasn’t been ideal, with injuries, COVID and the form of some of our players, plus I have some bad memories of defeats going up there I have to say.
The record we have in the league in the last few times we’ve gone up there hasn’t actually been that bad, with a 3-1 victory in the FA Cup in 2011, plus a 4-1 win in the cup in 2004. But before that our form was patchy and in the late 90s and early 2000s Leeds got their fair share of decent results against us. And when we played them in the FA Cup at the Emirates last season we scraped a hard fought 1-0 win. So my expectations today are of a very tough game.
Bielsa will set up his team to be aggressive, move the ball quickly, press us hard and close the spaces. They will be missing their playmaker in Pablo Hernandez, but the return of Kalvin Phillips means that they’ll have a deeper lying defensive midfielder to cover ground who hasn’t been present in their recent defeats to Leicester and Palace. His return will be a boost and so we shouldn’t expect too much space in front of their defence.
In fact we shouldn’t expect too much space anywhere because one of the characteristics of this Bielsa Leeds team is that they are always on the move. It is perpetual motion for their players as Bielsa has drilled a ‘receive and go’ mentality that will be designed to pull teams apart.
That’s why I don’t think we’ll see too much deviation in terms of philosophy at all by Arteta today. He’ll know that Leeds will play in a certain way and Bielsa won’t deviate from his approach, so I expect an Arsenal team set up to be defensively structured and deeper in terms of positions on the pitch. Where this has undone us has been when we have had our whole team occupy deeper average positions, because it has been more difficult to break at pace with the players that Arteta has selected. That’s why my hope for today is that the front line sees more pace about it. Take out Lacazette and Willian and replace them with players who can counter quicker. Ordinarily I’d say Pepe and Saka either side of Aubameyang centrally, but I wonder if Saka is taken out of the team for this game given the minutes he has played for England.
Arteta hinted at that when asked about it in his press conference and I have a feeling that we’ll not be seeing the 19-year-old from the start at least.
So if that’s the case who is in that first XI? My gut tells me it’ll be Leno, Bellerin, but then he might go for Mustafi, Luiz and Gabriel as a back three, with Tierney as the left wing back. If he wants to inject fresher legs then he could go with Maitland-Niles on the left and if I was Arteta I’d be sorely tempted.
The midfield duo will be Ceballos and Xhaka, simply because of the lack of alternatives given the injury to Partey and self isolation of Elneny and it is a midfield which we know hasn’t always worked. But in Project Restart it was that midfield that delivered as part of an FA Cup winning side so hopefully the two of them can pick up that partnership for today. Xhaka will be the deeper of the two and will gravitate to the left as per last season, with Ceballos being encouraged to drive forward more with the ball. The Spaniard will hopefully have some fire in his belly reserved from his midweek spat with Luiz and I want to see him come out with a point to prove today. I want to see the Ceballos from Project Restart, not the one from the beginning of last season and this. Industrious, not holding on to the ball too long, releasing at the right time, etc. That’s what I want to see.
And if we go with the back three and two in midfield then we have only three left for the forward positions. To my mind I don’t see how he can justify a Lacazette and Willian inclusion from the start today, but I have a worry that one, or even both, might play. If I had to choose I’d be hooking Lacazette first, play Willian left and Pepe right with Auba through the middle. But I think Arteta will stick with Auba left which probably means Lacazette or Nketiah through the middle. I’d rather see if Nketiah can have a point to prove against the team he spent half a season on loan at, than a Lacazette missing the few chances we do have, but I think it might be Willian who is hooked for his transgressions in Dubai. If that’s the case then surely Pepe has to play and at least that injects a bit of pace into our counter.
But only if he is provided the ball in decent spaces. Halfway in his own half on the right hand side with Bellerin behind him isn’t a decent space. High up the pitch but isolated with no Arsenal players around him isn’t a decent space. He needs to link with the likes of Bellerin, Aubameyang, etc. That’s what we need to see more of and I am hoping we get that this afternoon.
It’ll be a tough one, a close one, I have my fingers crossed. I just hope Arsenal turn up with a point to prove after the disaster that was Villa at home.
Catch y’all tomorrow with some match thoughts.