Mikel Arteta made nine changes from the team that outplayed Aston Villa but his second string 11 encountered few difficulties getting past Leeds United in the Carabao Cup last night.
The home win in front of a noisy crowd at The Emirates puts us in the quarter finals of the competition (one of only two realistic chances of silverware this year along with the FA Cup). Or one of three if you think we’re in with an outside chance of winning the Premier League (I’d be tempted to suggest you keep taking the tablets but… never say never).
Leno was back in goal, Holding joined Ben White in central defence with Cedric at right back and Kolasinac at left back. Maitland-Niles and Elneny were the deep-lying two in the centre of midfield and there were starts for Pepe, Nketiah and Martinelli up front.
Apart from White, Emile Smith Rowe was the only other player retained from the Villa victory.
We started brightly, as has been our habit of late. There was some nice movement and passing as we carved through the visitors’ defence in the first 15 minutes only to be thwarted by bad decision making or committed defending.
Leeds started to make their presence felt and threatened our goal on several occasions. A superb long ball over the top found Dan James rushing into our penalty area. His first touch was pretty good but Leno was off his line very smartly to smother the danger. On the touchline Arteta was going ballistic about the fact we almost allowed ourselves to be undone by a 60 yard pass.
Leno was called into action twice more to make good low saves. One shot in particular was struck with vicious power but the German’s reactions were faultless and he steered the ball to safety.
At half time I thought we were the better team overall but Leeds had had the better chances, which was a bit of a worry. We’d made some pretty patterns but without much end product.
Whatever El Patron said to the players at half time clearly worked, because we went up a gear immediately after the restart and never really looked back.
There was greater sharpness to our play, particularly off the ball: we just did not let the visitors get into any sort of stride and we harassed them high enough up the pitch that it became increasingly difficult for them to pose any real danger.
The breakthrough came in the 55th minute. Ben White had just gone off with an injury (later it was reported that he was feeling sick and that there’s a bug doing the rounds). Calum Chambers came on as we were taking a corner.
Emile Smith Rowe sent a perfect delivery into the Leeds box, Nketiah managed to flick it towards the back post where Pepe nodded it back across goal again for Chambers to head home just seconds after coming on and with his first touch of the game.
Watching in real time the ball seemed to have crossed the line but there was a nervy minute while the ref hesitated. When the goal was confirmed the celebrations were fun to watch and betokened a positive sense of togetherness in the squad.
The game was made safe in the 69th minute when Nketiah latched onto a defender’s header back towards the keeper, Meslier. Eddie’s speed and anticipation were outstanding as he got to the ball just before Meslier and flicked it over the keeper’s head.
He got to the bounce just before it was about to go out of play and shinned the ball home from a tight angle.
Yes, he almost made a hash of it but he deserved the bit of luck that came with his mis-hit effort spinning into the net. (In fairness, I thought he slipped just as he struck the ball, which explains the mis-hit).
From then on we were always comfortable and the crowd were able to enjoy a relatively relaxing last 20 minutes.
So How Did the Understudies Do?
Some of the second string enhanced their prospects last night; others – particularly among the attackers – probably did not do enough to convince Arteta that they should be in the Premier League first 11.
Leno had an outstanding game and didn’t put a foot (or glove) wrong. Holding, Cedric and Kolasinac all did well overall despite fans’ reservations about some of them. In midfield I thought AMN was terrific, while Elneny had a poor game.
In attack, Eddie was industrious all night and in the end got the goal he deserved but… Pepe and Martinelli both showed why they’re not being preferred in the bigger games. They each had good moments, but their lack of decisiveness on the ball was telling. They both tend to hold on to it for too long, running and dribbling until they inevitably get tackled. More work to do on the training field for both.
Leno – 7.5
Had little to do in the second half but his first half performance was faultless. I think he was helped by the fact that Leeds did not try many long balls into our box (the area where he can struggle), but the performance was a reminder that we have two ‘first choice’ ‘keepers at Arsenal. I would expect Leno to leave next summer (if not in January) and for us to get decent money for him.
Cedric – 6.5
He looked a little lost once or twice in the first half but settled down well and contributed to the attack on several occasions.
White – 7.5
Looked very good until he went off. I love those times when he takes the ball out of defence and charges into midfield. It really messes up the opposition’s defensive organisation.
Holding – 7
Big Rob did what Big Rob does: good in the air, committed and physical. I really like Holding and he is a great back-up CB to have, but White is definitely a bigger asset.
Kolasinac – 6.5
There’s always a bit of “watch from behind the sofa” energy when Kola starts, but in fairness he did fine last night. He knows he’s a fringe player but when he’s been called on his commitment has been good. (Kola getting a start presumably means Tavares was being rested, which therefore means that Tierney won’t be back for the Leicester game at the weekend).
Maitland-Niles – 8 (MoTM)
AMN was all action last night and will have given Arteta something to think about. It was a high energy, combative game from him and he looked like a real leader on the pitch. On this form he is vying for a regular starting position alongside Partey.
Elneny – 5
Mo has not had much game time lately and it showed. He seemed off the pace throughout.
Smith Rowe – 7
Not as dominant as he was against Villa, but everything this lad does looks slick. I think he suffered last night from the fact that the other forwards were not as much on the same wavelength as him as the likes of Saka and Auba.
Pepe – 6.5
Oh how we all want Pepe to blossom into a £70m player. He shows flashes of real genius at times but whenever the ball goes out to him on the wing you kind of know what’s going to happen. He’ll cut inside, maybe beat a player or two, then get tackled by the third or be forced into a backwards pass. No, I haven’t forgotten the occasions when he cuts into the box and buries the ball in the net, but if he doesn’t do that the end product is usually very little and contrasts badly with the directness of Saka. That said (and as RC pointed out in comments) he did get an assist for Chambers’ goal.
Martinelli – 6
When Gabriel made his breakthrough in the Europa League the season before last I really thought we had the next Cristiano Ronaldo on our hands. However he seems to have hit a plateau since then and needs to make the next step. One simple rule he needs to take on board is: use the ball more quickly!
Nketiah – 7
Struggled for service, particularly in the first half, but never stopped trying and had some good moments. His goal kept up an outstanding scoring record in the EFL.
Chambers – 7.5
Gets an extra half point for the goal, but also looked very comfortable at CB after coming on for the ailing White.
Tavares – 6
Replaced Holding (who appeared to have cramp). Had little to do.
Lokonga – 6
On for Elneny. He did fine.
Lacazette – 6
Replaced Smith Rowe and looked sharp. Could have got his name on the scoresheet late on but fired his shot over the bar.