Great expectations not met as Leeds United's Carabao Cup 'run' ends with a whimper at Arsenal - Graham Smyth's Verdict
Three games does not a cup run make, but for Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa the fourth round of the Carabao Cup represented unbroken ground.
Never before in his tenure have the Whites progressed as far in any cup competition but the journey ended at the Emirates, with a 2-0 defeat.
A first half that bore real promise gave way to a second half and an exit that was more whimper than it was bang.
The draw could have been a lot kinder than a trip to Arsenal but after an improved display against Wolves on Saturday, there was a reasonable amount of hope and expectation surrounding Leeds.
Their hosts went into the game unbeaten since August, but 10th in the table with their fanbase expecting much, much more of the ownership, management and team. With a good start, a fair wind and maybe even an opening goal, Leeds could seek to make life difficult for Mikel Arteta and turn the Emirates expectation into frustration.
For the Whites, the importance of managing expectation was evident in the summer as senior players hammered home the point that a second Premier League season was going to be more of a challenge. Luke Ayling felt they would lose the surprise factor. Patrick Bamford spoke of the difficulty of rising expectations.
Bielsa is good at keeping feet on the ground. He takes football a game at a time, never looking too far ahead or giving hypotheticals the time of day.
Just last week he used his press conference to extinguish hopes that Kalvin Phillips would play against Wolves, hopes that had been fanned into flames by the club’s social media content celebrating his return to the training pitch.
The fact that the midfielder didn’t play in Friday night’s Under-23s game and his inclusion among the subs for the Wolves clash suggested he would come back into the team for the Carabao Cup, a competition in which no one quite knows what to expect of Bielsa and Leeds.
Of course, any side the Argentine put out should have beaten Crewe in the second round, but Bielsa’s cup record shows contradictions of that theory. Crawley will linger in the memory for all the wrong reasons.
It has been difficult to work out what he wants from this competition. To win each game, obviously, but how much is he willing to commit to it? When your squad by design is small and your injury list long, the balancing act is a hard one.
A strong line-up against Crewe and a relatively senior one at Fulham hinted that Bielsa was content to have a bit of a go this season. At Arsenal there had to be a sense of seniority to the team but Bielsa still went stronger than some may have anticipated. Phillips did return, Diego Llorente and Stuart Dallas added experience to the back line. Jack Harrison and Daniel James remained on the flanks.
There was no Joe Gelhardt, despite his game-changing impact against Wolves, Bielsa sticking with Tyler Roberts as his 10 and Rodrigo as his number nine. Both attackers have been struggling to live up to expectations and this was a big chance, for Roberts particularly, to start delivering what is required.
The home side settled better in the early minutes and looked to exploit the man-to-man marking system, Rob Holding running from deep into too much space, allowing Arsenal to play higher up the pitch than was comfortable for Leeds.
Barring a Gabriel Martinelli shot that Illan Meslier kept out and a number of early corners, the Whites emerged from the opening quarter of an hour unscathed.
They had moments in the opposition half but fell foul of a final ball that was just shy of pinpoint or an over-eager run and an offside flag. Debutant Cody Drameh was settling nicely, a trio of big challenges and a ball expertly clipped into the channel run of Rodrigo showing his confidence.
Llorente, too, was growing into the game, displaying the full range of his passing, into the feet of strikers or over the top, a perfect example of the latter putting James in on Bernd Leno, who won the duel.
Leno also kept out Harrison’s fiercely struck back post shot from a Dallas corner, Leeds beginning to give just as good as they got.
Arsenal remained dangerous, with pace proving to be their biggest threat, but control was wrestled from them as Leeds got Llorente on the ball repeatedly, to good effect. When the Gunners did attack, Leeds looked to counter through James who lacked only a final ball.
In the early stages of the second half, Arsenal regained control and dialled up the pressure sufficiently to earn a breakthrough. Calum Chambers replaced the injured Ben White, joined the action for a Gunners corner and headed home with his first touch. That, in truth, was that.
Bielsa sent on Gelhardt for Roberts and Liam Cooper for Llorente, whose header back to Meslier lacked the necessary contact, Eddie Nketiah nipping in to take the ball and just about squeeze it home into an empty net. In the space of 25 minutes Leeds had traded a position of comfort and strength for an uphill struggle and were heading out of the cup.
The major disappointment was the lack of response, Arsenal didn’t always boss the possession but they didn’t have to, defending with ease to repel the visitors’ rare forays up the field.
Bielsa's changes did little to alter the course of the game, Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville were all willing and eager but could make no real impression and in the end it looked all-too easy for Arsenal.
No matter the line-up, the baseline expectations of a Bielsa team are to run, to fight and to attack. In the second half at least, two out of three just wasn’t enough.
When Leeds last visited the Emirates in a cup competition they did so as a Championship side and on that occasion they had nothing to lose. Defeat by the narrowest of scorelines was a glorious and convenient failure. They gave the Gunners a torrid time of it but left the competition to concentrate fully on the number one priority, promotion.
Maintaining Premier League status has now replaced the innate, longing desire to obtain it, and it’s difficult to argue that a cup run would be anything other than a nice thing. A hindrance? Perhaps. A distraction, possibly. But still, a nice thing.
There’s always the FA Cup, but Bielsa admitted at full-time this was a ‘big disappointment.’ His touchline body language as the tie slipped away made it plain that he was expecting much more than this.