The Carabao Cup is the least important competition for Arsenal, but it will continue to serve a useful purpose for Mikel Arteta in keeping more of his squad active until the New Year.
The one-legged tie will be played in the week commencing Dec. 20, almost two months from now but Arteta needs all the games he can get to keep the majority of his players involved until further alterations take place in January.
An absence of European football this term has restricted opportunities for several individuals including Calum Chambers and Eddie Nketiah, who both scored in the second half to settle this as a contest in which Leeds looked the better side for the latter part of the opening period.
One extra fixture may not make much difference purely in terms of game time, but the opposite would have been much worse: defeat would consign many of this lineup, containing nine changes from Friday’s Premier League win over Aston Villa, resigned to the high probability of no competitive action until the January transfer window opens when their respective situations could be resolved.
“It opens up more space to give opportunities for the group and obviously is a trophy we want to compete for — that’s the whole point of it,” said Arteta. “It is great to see the players that we have get opportunities, the way they played, the way they competed against a really good side. “
Appropriately enough, Chambers and Nketiah are two with uncertain futures. Chambers, 26, is out of contract next summer although the club have an option to extend his existing deal by a further year.
They are yet to exercise it, however, given this was only his fourth appearance of the season, introduced after 55 minutes following Ben White‘s premature departure due to the same sick bug that ruled out Pablo Mari altogether.
And what an introduction it was. From the resumption, Emile Smith Rowe swung a right-footed inswinging corner to the far post where Nicolas Pepe headed it back across goal for Chambers to head goalwards.
Leeds goalkeeper Ilian Meslier scrambled the ball clear but did so from behind the line, cueing wild celebrations for Chambers’ first goal since September 2019.
According to Arteta, those celebrations were the product of “three different coaches and a player who told him he would score” moments before coming on.
Nketiah made sure of the victory 13 minutes later, taking advantage of substitute Liam Cooper‘s poor attempted header back towards his own goal, by lifting the ball over Meslier with his first touch before sidefooting goalwards from a tight angle. It was an unconvincing finish but good enough to squirm over the line.
There was no doubt a degree of personal satisfaction here, too, after a disappointing loan spell at Leeds last season in which he scored three Championship goals in 17 appearances (including just two starts).
“It’s always nice to play, it’s been a while, I have been working hard, waiting for my opportunity,” Nketiah told Sky Sports. Nketiah was close to joining Crystal Palace in the summer – the two clubs agreed a fee but the deal subsequently collapsed over personal terms — and is another out of contract at the end of the season but Arteta suggested he could yet remain at Arsenal in the long term.
“We had a situation in the summer that we tried to resolve and we couldn’t either way,” he said.
“That is the contract situation that is more and more common in football for where we are coming from with Covid and a lot of the issues that we have to resolve.
“I have full belief that he is going to be a top, top player and hopefully at Arsenal. I’m happy to have him, he is our player, I regard him really highly and from my side I want him to stay.”
It was the familiar League Cup menagerie of more senior players scratching for form — Pepe did little once again to silence doubts over his £72 million fee — alongside squad players desperate for a chance to impress including Cedric Soares, Mohamed Elneny, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Gabriel Martinelli and those most likely to leave when the opportunity allows including Sead Kolasinac and Bernd Leno.
Ultimately, Arsenal deserved their sixth win in eight games across all competitions, which maintains momentum behind Arteta’s rebuild for the tasks ahead on which he will be judged.
The only note of caution came through White’s injury. He has endured a mixed start since signing for £50m from Brighton in the summer, but there have been promising signs of late and an enforced absence through illness would be a setback in his aim of establishing himself at the heart of Arsenal’s defence.
Of course, that would also give an opportunity for another player to step in. But Arteta would prefer to rotate on his own terms – and a Carabao Cup quarterfinal is another chance to do just that.