Last night’s FA Cup Third Round tie at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was, for Leeds United, not only a taste of things to come, but also the very definition of glorious defeat. The wider context of what we hope will finally be our promotion season puts the once magical allure of the FA Cup sharply into perspective. Put bluntly, it’s a competition that a club challenging to reach the Premier League can well do without – something Leeds United can save for headier days, when, for a newly promoted side, it may once more provide a realistic chance for silverware. Meanwhile, it was the manner of United’s defeat, rather than the fact of it, wherein lay Monday night’s glory and the source of all the plaudits.
Make no mistake, this FA Cup exit – or more accurately, the nature of the performance given by United – will stand in the top rank of our club’s FA Cup showings going way back to the last century. It was a big stage, a famous opponent, and – importantly, as it turned out – Leeds United’s first encounter with the infamous Video Assistant Referee (VAR) of which so much has been said while we’ve been watching on from the sidelines. Many United fans have been worrying out loud about the effect of this technological innovation upon our club as and when it ascends into the elite group. On the evidence of the Arsenal tie, those worries may well be justified – but more of that later.
As for the game itself, and the first half in particular, there was cause for great pride and no small measure of frank disbelief. We know about the “big” Premier League clubs, the brand of football played, the phenomenally costly overseas recruits who adorn our game with their brilliance. This incarnation of Arsenal is not quite the vintage that North London experienced under Monsieur Wenger, but they’re still a formidable prospect for most visiting teams, as manchester united discovered to their cost only a few days before Leeds rolled into town. The red united had no answer to Arsenal’s intensity and attack, and many thought that the Whites would be crushed in similar fashion – but the reality was somewhat different, as Leeds tore into their hosts from the first whistle and gave them no respite for the whole of that whirlwind first half.
I have to confess, I had my worries about the possibility of getting thumped – I wanted out of the Cup, but not in a humiliating manner. But, as the game got going, I found myself sitting there, jaw agape, hardly able to believe the extent of United’s dominance. They launched attack after attack, first to every second ball, pushing Arsenal back, bombarding the Gunners’ goal with attempt after attempt and generally bossing proceedings. My social media comment at half time was “This can’t last – but we’ve absolutely murdered Arsenal in that first half”.
And it didn’t last. Arsenal woke up after the break, and – although they never dominated as Leeds had done – they got their goal, and they managed to keep us out. So, glorious defeat, and this Leeds fanatic was happy enough.
As for VAR – if we do end up playing top flight football next season, then I see trouble ahead. The Emirates experience included the unaccountable kid-gloves treatment of Arsenal man Granit Xhaka, who could have been sent off twice for two pairs of yellow card offences – and then VAR saw Alexandre Lacazette kick out at United’s Gaetano Berardi, but deemed it unworthy of action. If that’s a foretaste of what we can expect in the Premier League, then, despite our burning desire to be up there, you have to wonder if it’s not better to travel hopefully than to arrive.