Low cup expectations sank further when the pre-match fourth round draw — couldn’t they have waited until we were finished? — paired us away to Bournemouth. Arsenal? You fancy it?
This season is all about promotion from the Championship for Leeds United, so if there was little point in playing Arsenal in the FA Cup, a trip to Bournemouth loomed as foolish. Marcelo Bielsa called the Arsenal match an “official engagement”, and obviously, you want to win all your official engagements. But there are some official engagements you don’t mind not winning, or not playing at all.
That had all changed inside the first twenty minutes at The Emirates Stadium. The expected points of interest remained, and the pre-match test, Ezgjan Alioski versus Gunnersaurus, passed without incident: perhaps it was too much a case of like meeting like, as Marcelo Bielsa seemed happier to see that long green neck than Gjanni. Perhaps Marcelo would like him defending corners.
Other attention was focused on the debutant Peacocks. Robbie Gotts has become a veteran of Leeds’ bench, not far from having his cushion presented to him as a retirement gift, and it’s a typical compliment from Bielsa that, rather than patronise him with a five minute cameo at the end of a Championship game, he started his career from the start in midfield against Arsenal.
Without excelling, Gotts did well, and takes credit for such a normal debut in abnormal circumstances. He passed well, pressed well, and presented with a chance in front of the near post, attempted the same finish he would have tried in the Under-23s. The ball went over the bar from a difficult angle, but the merit was in not changing his style to fit the occasion. Robbie Gotts was Robbie Gotts, as at home on the pitch as he was looking on the bench.
In goal, Illan Meslier was exceptional. Not so much with his hands, although there were saves on a spectrum from decent to good. But while the Championship hype machine is working overtime about Wayne Rooney’s new ‘quarterback’ role of standing still and kicking for Derby County, it was hard not to imagine Meslier at Pride Park in April, wearing the blue and gold goalie kit, pinging a first-time left-foot pass eighty yards down the pitch and over Derby’s defence like a new Stephen McPhail, for Pat Bamford to finish like a new Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.
Kiko Casilla’s panicked style has undersold Bielsa’s ideas about playmaking ‘keepers, but at the feet of Meslier the concept makes perfect sense. What team wouldn’t want their goalkeeper to pass with range, vision and accuracy, like Gary McAllister in gloves? How does any team get by without one? And far from worrying about Casilla’s potential ban for using racist language, how will we cope until he is banned and we can enjoy Meslier’s wand left foot again?
Jordan Stevens, as substitute, also showed more readiness for the level than might be expected from a player overcoming a betting banishment, and those three players told the microcosmic story of Leeds United’s night, that within twenty minutes had the full attention of a national television audience far larger than any subjected to Sky’s volume control.
Leeds started the first half as if intent on destroying Arsenal and, with the means to do it, they took any previously disinterested fans into the fight with them. Rookie manager Mikel Arteta was prepared — “I watched a lot of Leeds games and they battered every team every three days … If you’re not ready for Leeds, you’ll get exposed” — but his players were not. Starting as if expecting a stroll, stunned into mistakes, unlucky not to concede two or four or more, Arsenal weren’t shaken up the way an agricultural up and at ’em bunch from the lower divisions might have attempted. They were outplayed by a team playing a much more difficult style than them, lacking only the class in one or two areas to finish the game before half-time, class that £70m here and there will buy.
With Meslier and Gotts; without Pablo Hernandez, Liam Cooper, Adam Forshaw, Helder Costa; or even Tyler Roberts or Jamie Shackleton, or Stuart Dallas in any position; this was not even Leeds United’s best team, and they played better than many teams Arsenal have lost and will lose to this season, and much better than Arsenal themselves.
Jackie Harrison was the first half star, negotiating with Luke Ayling and Mateusz Klich for the freedom to drift inside from the right wing and cause central havoc like Pablo Hernandez. Klich fed Harrison for a one-two with Pat Bamford and a shot that required a good save; Klich again set Harrison up to pass to Bamford, who got the ball back after a quick one-two with Ayling and hammered it against the crossbar; Harrison dribbled inside for a shot and another save; Ayling, Bamford and Klich set up the chance for Gotts.
United’s left side couldn’t match that creativity, but Ayling sent dangerous back post crosses to Alioski and Barry Douglas, and Leeds were wise to concentrate on overloading their strong suit. Arsenal had a chance from a corner like everybody does, and a couple of breaks that fizzled out, but when Leeds retired at half-time their point was made, and new viewers were astonished.
There’s not much point, from a Leeds perspective, in pursuing the game beyond half-time. Arteta demanded and got more from his diffident, embarrassed players, and after Douglas lost the ball on halfway, a chain reaction of errors from Gaetano Berardi to Ben White exposed Meslier to conceding a scruffy winner to Reiss Nelson. The refereeing was typically favourable to the Premier League team; VAR added nothing but tedium. Afterwards, Arsenal’s players had to admit they only played better because they were shouted at like wayward children, while the Peacocks spoke mainly of pride. If there was relief on the night, it was ours, saved from that trip to Bournemouth, while our promotion rivals remain knotted in cup-ties.
The frustration, apart from the natural sort for not winning an official engagement, was that the point was made, but it’s the same point Leeds made at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane ten years ago in January 2010. By beating and drawing with top of the Premier League teams despite being trapped in League One at the time, Leeds United achieved Alioski’s aim for the Arsenal match — “go there and show them who Leeds are” — and Simon Grayson’s players proved they belonged in the Premier League.
Many of them have played there since, and grown older, and retired, but Leeds United have only grown older. Ten years later we were at The Emirates making the same point again, a new group of players proving their claim, even a new set of young supporters revelling in a top-flight stadium and promising, soon.
It’s a feature of a league system that a better team fails to win promotion than the team in the league above avoiding relegation, and Leeds have a better team now than whichever club will win £100m for ending the season fourth from bottom of the Premier League. But while that’s the prize for failure, Leeds must have an exceptional season to achieve the right to fail so richly, or prove — as they did against Arsenal — that they won’t enter the Premier League with failure on their mind.
Since 2010 we’ve only had one exceptional season, and it was last season. If what we have is a once-a-decade team, we can’t afford not to keep them together, even more now we’ve just glimpsed what they might achieve together. We can’t win the FA Cup this season, but we can still make this match count, by making sure this time that ‘United Are Back’ is not an empty threat. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)