As the rest of the Premier League went into Covid-enforced abeyance, Arsenal have further strengthened their position in the top four. More to the point, their victory over Leeds – mature, intelligent, with a perfectly executed game plan – suggests their presence there is no fluke.
Mind you, if anyone could have done with a firebreak, it was Marcelo Bielsa. A chance to reset, a bit of time to get some of his first-choice fit again. Because, right now, he appears to be in an injury pandemic. Another three players succumbed after the midweek humiliation at Manchester City, meaning eight first-teamers were missing. His bench resembled a school outing, including in its number 15-year-old Archie Gray, grandson of Frank and great-nephew of Eddie. It spoke volumes for his paucity of resources that none of his substitutes has ever started a game.
Mikel Arteta, in contrast, has named the same 11 for the last four Premier League games. It meant Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was once again not in the squad. And it was hard to argue they looked diminished by the absence of the great sulk.
The Arsenal manager had done his homework on how to better a Bielsa team, no matter who was in it. Play the ball early to runners in behind the defence was clearly his instruction. And his players started at warp-factor pace, tearing great holes in the Leeds backline with every advance. Yet again deprived of the protection of Kalvin Phillips, they were immediately exposed. The admirable Illan Meslier had to make three saves in the first five minutes. Plus, he was obliged to watch after one of them as the ball bounced to Bukayo Saka, who missed an open goal.
It was not a surprise when Arsenal took the lead. Saka won the ball on the wing, advanced, played in Granit Xhaka, who, as he charged forward, thought he had been fouled, tumbling theatrically. The referee was not interested, and Adam Forshaw picked up possession and tried to dribble away. But, as he dawdled, he was tackled by the lurking Alexandre Lacazette, who played in Gabriel Martinelli. His shot was unerring into the corner.
Arteta’s side kept on looking to play in behind the Leeds backline. Luke Ayling was constantly obliged to intervene as the ball, almost invariably played in by Martin Odegaard, looked as if it were heading towards Lacazette or Saka.
The Arsenal plan was not going to go away. And it worked again when Xhaka stepped onto a loose Stuart Dallas pass in the centre circle. His perfect threaded ball again found huge gaps behind the Leeds defence. In stepped the eager Martinelli to chip over Meslier and then goad home fans by celebrating cheerfully in front of them. A hail of missiles was his greeting. Plus, according to Rob Holding, who reported it to the fourth official, some racist abuse.
For Bielsa, the bad news did not stop there. His injury list grew further when Jack Harrison hobbled off, to be replaced by the magnificently monikered Crysencio Summerville. Moments after the substitution, Meslier saved brilliantly from Lacazette as Arsenal tore yet further holes in the Leeds resistance. Another goal seemed inevitable. And one came just before half-time. Saka this time was in behind, charging forward and exchanging passes with Lacazette, before stabbing the ball home at the near post.
Arsenal were lucky not to lose Xhaka immediately after the second half began. But referee Andre Marriner reckoned his stamp on Raphinha did not even merit a card, unlike Joe Gelhardt’s over-enthusiastic challenge on Takehiro Tomiyasu a moment later.
Driven on by a passionate crowd, Leeds tried to redress the balance by pouring forward. Gelhardt won a penalty when Ben White cleaned him out as he advanced on goal. Raphinha slammed it home, but Arsenal were canny, tumbling in apparent agony at every opportunity, taking an age on throw-ins, seeking to drain the momentum from their eager opponents. And it worked to perfection when the substitute Emile Smith Rowe seized on yet another misplaced pass, passed the ball to Odegaard and tore forwards. None of the Leeds defenders seemed to notice, but Odegaard did, chipping a delicious pass into his path for Smith Rowe to score.
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