Replay is reward for Grayson's strong Leeds lineup
It could have been even better, but Leeds United’s efforts in securing a deserved draw against Arsenal in the FA Cup Third Round were a huge credit to Simon Grayson’s fearless team selection and fitting reward for the huge numbers of the Yorkshire club’s followers that converged on the Emirates Stadium to support their side.
Which angle to take when writing about Leeds United? Although many supporters of opposition clubs have revelled in the Elland Road club’s exile from the top flight in recent years, journalists appear to resent their absence. Nearly every report on Leeds since their relegation from the Premier League mentions the division in some tenuous way.
Sometimes this is in reference to their glorious past, focusing either on their 1970s heyday or Champions League exploits at the start of the last decade. Occasionally, the inevitable return of Leeds United to the Premier League gets an airing.
As a Leeds supporter and former youth team player, Simon Grayson knows all about their history. As their manager, he has high hopes for the future too. But he must primarily concern himself with the present day and, after an extended stay in the third tier, Leeds fans can be rightly proud of their current side and their current league position.
And the current Leeds side certainly commands respect, regardless of their illustrious predecessors. Grayson has moulded a hard-working, well organised team which is also packed with creativity. While the back four that started the FA Cup Third Round tie at the Emirates Stadium – Paul Connolly, Ben Parker, Andy O’Brien and Alex Bruce – may lack star quality, they enforced Grayson’s strict work ethic to frustrate a star-studded Arsenal lineup for large periods. Grayson’s midfield also put a trademark shift in and made life difficult for their opposite numbers.
Not that the Leeds side was discussed in any great detail prior to the game. Much of the focus before kick-off centred around Arsene Wenger’s team selection, with not an untried youngster in sight. However, Grayson deserves huge credit for picking a virtual first-choice eleven in the midst of an important promotion push. It was the least that the 8,500 Leeds fans packed into one end of the Emirates deserved and they were further rewarded by a vibrant start from their team.
The main protagonist was Luciano Becchio. Call it what you like (4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 perhaps) but the vogue formation, employed here by Grayson to good effect, can often fall flat if the lone striker finds himself isolated. This is something that most opposition managers at the Emirates will have trouble with. It could even be argued that Didier Drogba provided an example of this when Arsenal recently dispatched Chelsea.
But Becchio offered a masterclass in holding the ball up during the early stages as Leeds threatened well on the break. Jermaine Beckford may have dominated the media during his time with Leeds, but the impression to an outsider was of Becchio as more widely well-regarded among the Elland Road faithful.
Indeed, aspirations of promotion may well rely heavily on the durable Argentine’s upper body strength and perseverance. With a centre-forward so adept at keeping the ball under pressure, Grayson can pack his midfield with creativity and every one of the five supporting Becchio at the Emirates carry a goal threat. No water-carrying defensive midfielders to see here.
Previously prone to inconsistency, in-form wide men Max Gradel and Robert Snodgrass have been integral to their side’s rise up the Championship table over the winter months. With an hour gone, Gradel won a penalty after being up-ended by Denilson and Snodgrass confidently converted in front of a jubilant away end.
At this stage, Arsenal were getting what they deserved for resting players. Bacary Sagna was unavailable through suspension for a red card received in the final minutes of the Gunners’ midweek stalemate with Manchester City, but Wenger chose not to play the likes of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Gael Clichy and Laurent Koscielny from the start.
In the end, though, a draw was a fair result after Wenger introduced Walcott and Fabregas, who enlivened Arsenal considerably and duly aped Gradel and Snodgrass when the Englishman won a penalty and the Spaniard converted it.
Leeds survived a final onslaught by the hosts to claim an extremely creditable draw and the tantalising prospect of a replay, which could mean more television revenue for Ken Bates to pocket and which will be played in front of a vociferous home crowd.
A second shot at the fourth round was also fine reward for Grayson’s bravery and commitment to the tradition of the competition in selecting such a strong side. This was highlighted even further in the aftermath of the afternoon’s games, two of which led to serious injuries for key players at Championship promotion contenders.
It seems likely that both QPR striker Jamie Mackie and Swansea defender Garry Monk will miss most, if not all, of the rest of the campaign following injuries sustained on FA Cup duty. That could just as easily have been the case for the likes of new Leeds signing Andy O’Brien, captain Jonny Howson or the aforementioned Becchio, not to mention form players such as Gradel and Snodgrass. Grayson played them all, and more first-choice players besides. It was a gamble which paid off and neither the Hoops nor the Swans were as fortunate.
Leeds will certainly rest players as the season continues, but their squad now contains more confidence and depth of quality than it did when they kicked off against Derby County back in August. How Grayson juggles that squad will prove crucial in the coming months as his men fight for promotion to the Premier League. Sporadic use of Neil Kilkenny, Amdy Faye and Ross McCormack – to give just three examples of players who can come in to bolster the Leeds eleven – can keep things fresh.
A glorious past and an expectant future, but, for now, simply a very contented present. And Leeds United’s performance at the Emirates Stadium was a fitting gift to their impressive travelling fans.