By Richard Clarke
There have been two Arsenals in 2011.
The determined Premier League side that have swaggered their way to 3-0 wins at Birmingham and West Ham while having the better of the goalless draw with Manchester City inbetween.
Then there is the Cup side battling lower league sides. Before this year, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal had only suffered one defeat to lower League opposition in a knockout event. That figure was doubled by the 1-0 reverse at Ipswich in the Carling Cup and might have been trebled ten days ago had Cesc Fabregas not slotted home a last-minute penalty in the FA Cup Third Round tie at Emirates Stadium.
On Wednesday, Arsenal travel to Elland Road for the replay.
Given that his side are the only one in England going for all four trophies, the manager can justifiably argue that focus, not talent or fatigue, has been the issue.
“I cannot deny that,” admitted Wenger. “The players want to win everything and maybe we were a little bit surprised by the quality of the opposition. But we know now how good Leeds and Ipswich are and therefore we will adjust our focus to the difficulty of the task.
“You are under pressure so much in the Premier League that subconsciously, in a different competition, you are not always completely prepared as well as you want to be.
“I don’t think you underestimate, you just think you have enough. It’s a little bit of an unknown quantity and when you do not know what you face you are in a little bit in an ‘expectation’ mood. But when you play Cup games in England you want to be sharp.”
And Wenger is crystal clear about what his side need to change.
“The speed of our display, the speed of thought, the sharpness of our game,” he listed out. “We want to be sharper and more positive. We started the [first] game a little bit off our usual level. That means first, mentally, of all you want to switch on much quicker.”
“There will be a few changes because we play again on Wednesday, on Saturday and on Tuesday night,” said Wenger. “I will rotate but I will not tell you now how many players will be changed because I haven’t decided yet.”
Right now, there are few options at centre back apart from Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou. With Squillaci and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) out, they have soldiering through. Three straight Premier League clean-sheets suggest they have been more than fit for battle.
Before Christmas Wenger said that, like Robin van Persie, he was ‘managing’ the workload of Johan Djourou. It is a bit more simple now. If the Swiss defender is fit, he plays.
“It has changed through necessity,” admitted the manager. “The plan with three centre backs was alright because we could rotate. But that has all gone now. It is always the same two, so let’s hope we get through.”
It is no wonder that Wenger is actively looking for reinforcements in that area.
Since that draw at Emirates Stadium, Leeds have played once – a 4-0 win over Scunthorpe at Elland Road. It was actually their first win in six League and Cup games. For their part, Arsenal have lost once in their last seven games.
Although Leeds' keeper Kasper Schmeichel made a superb injury-time save from Denilson in the first game, few could begrudge Leeds another chance on home turf. Wenger was impressed by “the quality of their tactical discipline, the quality of their strengths in their commitment”.
“They had a positive attitude every time they had the ball, they were direct but tried to go forward,” he added.
“I believe no matter what they do [on Wednesday] the fans will be behind Leeds.
“But we are used to that. We have played all over the world, everywhere, in vociferous stadiums. I don’t think that will be any excuse for us - it’s natural and normal. What’s important is that you show your quality no matter what kind of environment in which you play.”
Wenger has never suffered a Third Round defeat. In fact they have only been taken to a replay twice – in the first two campaigns in North London - both ties were concluded successfully away from home.
With the best away record in the Premier League, Arsenal are understandable favourites to finish the job at Elland Road.
But, with the FA Cup being the FA Cup and Leeds being Leeds, they are likely to be pushed all the way.
* This tie must be concluded on Wednesday night. If the scores are level at 90 minutes there will be 30 minutes of extra-time. If the scores are still level then the winner will be decided via penalty kicks.Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 19 Jan 2011