While Mikel Arteta might have fancied winning this tie from a strong subs’ bench, he would not have expected Calum Chambers to strike the telling blow. But it was Chambers, firmly on the periphery of his thoughts since August, who breached Leeds straight after coming on and pointed the way to an ultimately comfortable win.
Eddie Nketiah squeezed in a second to offer a reminder that his more familiar predatory instincts remain sharp; it means Arsenal are unbeaten in eight and the only possible concern was the reason for Chambers’ introduction. He was sent on because Ben White could not continue and Arteta will hope that, in the long run, the decision to start his first-choice centre-back did not backfire.
Arteta has picked strong sides for Arsenal’s assignments in this competition, perhaps in the awareness that extra games are welcome in the absence of midweek European tests. This selection included nine changes from the highly encouraging win over Aston Villa on Friday although there was some surprise that Emile Smith Rowe and White, two of the star performers from that night, were the players retained.
Then again, Marcelo Bielsa kept seven of those who started the last-gasp draw with Wolves. Leeds badly need to play themselves into form and Kalvin Phillips, reintroduced after injury for his first appearance in three and a half weeks, requires match fitness in order to be the driving force upon whom so much depends.
Arsenal began as if by far the less disrupted. Cody Drameh, the 19-year-old right-back given a debut by Bielsa, endured a shaky start and received an ear warming from Diego Llorente after Gabriel Martinelli had nicked the ball away from him, requiring the centre-back to salvage the situation. Llorente was soon in last-ditch action again, stretching to stop the surging Ainsley Maitland-Niles get a shot off after Nketiah’s perceptive flick. From the loose ball, Sead Kolasinac forced Illan Meslier to save at the near post.
Nketiah, a stalling talent who was making his first appearance since the win over AFC Wimbledon a round previously, bewildered Pascal Struijk with a sublime turn near halfway but Leeds gradually began to find their feet. In the 19th minute Dan James was released by a marvellous raking pass from Llorente, but could not quite nudge past Bernd Leno. Before the half-hour Leno, firmly overtaken by Aaron Ramsdale in the affections of both Arteta and Arsenal’s support nowadays, made a useful stop when parrying a sharp drive from Jack Harrison.
Beyond glimpses of initiative from Maitland-Niles in midfield and some characteristically smooth forays upfield by White, who was facing his former loan club, Arsenal’s threat dimmed significantly. Leeds were showing at least a version of the energy that has characterised Bielsa’s tenure and, from the game’s best move to date, came relatively close again when Rodrigo cleverly dummied to allow Tyler Roberts a shot that deflected wide. Leno was then smartly out at Rodrigo’s feet but the first half’s final opening fell to the hitherto quiet Smith Rowe, who blasted wildly with his left foot after scrappy defending.
Bielsa edged closer to his favoured XI by introducing Mateusz Klich for Adam Forshaw at the interval. After a flat start to the second period he rolled the dice again by swapping Roberts for the weekend’s revelation, Joe Gelhardt. Those switches appeared tactical; what an odd sequence it was, then, when an undesired substitution by Arteta reaped immediate dividends.
It had always seemed a risk to start White, who ran off a knock in the first half, and in the 55th minute he received treatment before departing. The consequences of that will become clear in time; the fruit of the change was, astonishingly, a goal from the player deployed in his stead.
Chambers’ immediate task was to go up for a corner and, after Smith Rowe’s inswinging delivery, Nketiah flicked on for Nicolas Pépé to nod back across at the far post. In steamed Chambers, whose header was bundled away by Meslier. After a wait of several seconds, Andre Marriner confirmed it had crossed the line; Arsenal’s players celebrated in a bundle near the technical areas to mark the defender’s first goal since September 2019.
Soon they could rejoice again. Arsenal had been in firm control since scoring and made things safe when Nketiah, always on the prowl, latched on to an undercooked header back by Liam Cooper. That left his keeper in no man’s land and Nketiah, darting around Meslier, kept his feet and composure to convert from a tight angle. The visitors never looked like mounting a fightback.