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Arsenal 1 - Leeds United 0 match report: a tale of two halves

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Leeds dominated the first 45 but didn’t score. Arsenal dominated the second and did.

Arsenal FC v Leeds United - FA Cup Third Round
Reiss Nelson was the hero today for Arsenal.
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

The two halves of Arsenal’s 1-0 FA Cup third round win over Leeds United were about as perfectly mirrored as two halves of football can be. Leeds dominated the first half. They ran themselves ragged and pressed Arsenal into mistake after mistake in their own half. The Gunners bossed the second 45. They generated chance after chance, the Peacocks could hardly get out of their defensive half, and any time they did, the Gunners snuffed out the danger. The critical difference between those mirrored halves: Patrick Bamford hit the bar, Reiss Nelson bungled one in.

Leeds are well-coached and good at what they do. They press man-to-man and do so as a unit. They forced Arsenal into seemingly endless turnovers in the first half with coordinated pressure and high workrate. The Gunners central midfielders (Xhaka, Guendouzi, and Ozil) didn’t help matters; they did not check back and/or go to the right areas to make themselves outlets for the defenders.

But Leeds’ style is not sustainable over 90 minutes; players cannot run that much for an entire match. And when you work as hard as Leeds did in the first half and don’t get a goal for your efforts, you’re in trouble. Arsenal took it to the visitors in the second half and scored in the 55th minute. By the 65th minute, Leeds players looked exhausted — hands on hips, bending over when the ball went out of play, not chasing down Arsenal defenders, etc.

Without watching the match a second time, I’m not sure I could identify a significant tactical shift between halves from the Gunners. I did notice that in the second half Matteo Guendouzi was playing more disciplined from a positional perspective and not roaming all over the pitch. The structure imposed and passing options added by that change may have done the trick.

Reiss Nelson, Sokratis, and Nicolas Pepe all had solid games for the Gunners. Alexandre Lacazette, after a poor first half (although to be fair everybody was poor in the first half), had a great second half. Against Manchester United on New Year’s Day, he had the most defensive actions in the attacking half of the field. He got back to that level in the second 45 today. This may be my reading things into a player and the game that aren’t there, but he seems to play better after he has had something done to him to spark his anger/aggression — a hard foul committed against him, a penalty not given, a foul called against him he doesn’t like. It is as if he needs something to jumpstart him. I’ve harped on his poor form, but he seems to be turning things around. He’ll be back among the goals soon.

Arsenal will travel to Bournemouth at the end of January for the 4th round of the FA Cup.