Arsene Wenger dared reflect late last night on a dimension to Arsenal's history which he has been unable to contribute to for too long. His side have progressed to an FA Cup fourth round against Huddersfield Town, 10 days from now, and his eyes were alight when he settled into his chair and reflected that "there's a link between Huddersfield and Arsenal that goes back a long way...."
That link is Herbert Chapman, of course, the only manager whose contribution to the great club surpasses his own and who claimed four league titles with Arsenal and Huddersfield. Wenger could afford himself that smile because his side had demonstrated that strength of purpose which has been lacking in the six long years since silver polish was last on the shopping list at the Emirates.
The talk after the match was of the extraordinary Elland Road atmosphere. This was one of the biggest crowds here since the Premier League era ended in 2004 and the hostility – "We are so proud, we are shouting out Leeds, we are Leeds..." – gave the sense that Wenger's side would wither before our eyes. Ken Bates certainly did not bow down before Wenger, a manager who, the Leeds chairman said in his programme notes, "should perhaps have gone to Specsavers." Theo Walcott, Bates added, was "a player who somewhat belatedly realised that diving is a swimming sport which has not place in football."
Arsenal allowed no-one to play them for fools. There was some impeccable timing about Samir Nasri's peerless display on a night when Wenger felt the need to discuss shared leadership and when the Frenchman happened to be captain. There were no grand gestures from Nasri though, he simply operated at the nexus of a midfield in which each player knew where the other was and that carved apart the home side.
The first goal was typical of that telepathy. Marouane Chamakh was pivotal to it without taking a touch, dummying instead for Nasri to take on a pass laced through by Andrei Arshavin and, with Ben Parker's challenge a weak one, wriggling through to score,
Leeds looked as if they immediately might go under as Chamakh, unmarked to rise and head powerfully, forced Kasper Schmeichel to scoop the ball from his goalline with his right hand, a save even his father might have struggled to make.
Arshavin should have poked in Chamakh's low cross rolled in from the right – he went at it with the wrong foot – and Nicklas Bendtner has failed to connect with a similar ball played across from the right by Bacary Sagna before the full-back made a rather more emphatic job of finishing. In the 35th minute he collected a ball Alex Bruce had blocked into his path and was allowed far too much space to run into the box and unravel a shot which took a deflection before soaring beyond Schmeichel, who could hardly take any blame.
The ironic chants of "We're not famous any more" were sounding before Leeds produced the goal which keep the tie alive. Robert Snodgrass' hopeful shot from the edge of the area had been the Championship side's only serious effort until Max Gradel's powerful run into the box worked another opportunity. The ball was only cleared to Bradley Johnson, who unleashed a spectacular left-foot effort beyond Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Wenger was indignant, feeling that Arshavin had been fouled by Snodgrass during the first phase, but it was a strike worthy of a goal.
Within seconds, Gradel was turning to run at the Arsenal defence and blasting high and wide, and the tie seemed reborn, though the way Alex Song took Nasri's pass and forced another one-handed save from Schmeichel straight after the restart in the second half suggested that Leeds had stemmed a tide, not turned it back.
It was with an awareness that the game was not going his way that Leeds manager Simon Grayson deployed the striker Davide Somma, whose seven goals in 14 appearances have made him a force, in place of Billy Paynter. But Somma's first touch was a frustrating one – the ball rebounded off his knee and away – and when Wenger made substitutions of his own they delivered immediately. Bentdtner floated another ball from the Leeds' weaker left flank and Robin van Persie, who had just come on with Cesc Fabregas, was allowed time to leap with ease and head home the 76th-minute goal which sealed proceedings. Leeds' defence had again let them down.
Bates also reflected in his programme on six years as chairman here. "There have been turbulent times. Losing £120,000 a week with freeloaders enjoying rose champagne in the boardroom, it was hard work changing the culture which existed previously and I enjoyed few points for popularity," he said. On the basis of the inequality of these sides, the gulf in class is still there, even if the Elland Road culture has changed.
But Fabregas's conclusions were more prescient: "We didn't know much about them but today we were much the superior team. You love the speculation about us but we are here to play football and that is it. Today, leadership is what we've shown; winning balls and playing for each other." Leeds face a struggle for promotion. Arsenal may soon have a trophy in the cabinet.
Leeds United (4-4-2) Schmeichel; Connolly, O'Brien (Bromby, 66), Bruce, Parker; Snodgrass, Howson, Johnson, Gradel; Paynter (Somma, 68), Watt (Sam, 79). Substitutes not used Higgs (gk), Collins, Hughes, McCormack
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Gibbs; Nasri (Clichy, 83), Denilson, Song; Bendtner, Chamakh (Fabregas, 70), Arshavin (Van Persie, 70). Substitutes not used Walcott, Wilshere, Eboué, Shea (gk).
Man of the match Nasri.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
FA Cup fourth round
Saturday 29 January
Aston Villa v Blackburn
Birmingham v Coventry
Bolton v Wigan
Burnley v Burton Albion
Everton v Chelsea
Sheffield Wednesday v Hereford
Southampton v Manchester United
Stevenage v Reading
Swansea v Leyton Orient
Torquay v Crawley Town
Watford v Brighton
West Ham v Nottingham Forest
Wolves v Stoke
Sunday 30 January
Arsenal v Huddersfield
Fulham v Tottenham
Notts County v Manchester City
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