With the final international break of the year finally over and done with, teams up and down England and indeed across Europe, can breathe a hearty sigh of relief as their best players return, hopefully unscathed.
Arsenal had a few casualties heading into their match against Leeds United, with only Thomas Partey, Gabriefl Martinelli, Calum Chambers and Pablo Marí being occupants of the injury table without international-duty related injuries or maladies; meanwhile Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolašinac were unable to take part, due to potential COVID-19 interactions.
Before the aforementioned international break, Mikel Arteta had spoken about the need to change things as Arsenal’s lack of creativity has seen them approach nearly eight hours without a goal from open play in the Premier League. To aid this, Arteta stitched together a midfield that could cover for Partey and Elneny’s absences with Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka dropping in to help and rewarding Joe Willock for his excellent Europa League performances with a rare start. But the big news was reserved for the forward line, though Willian remained in place (much to Arsenal fans’ chagrin), Nicolas Pépé started from the get-go and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made his first start through the middle for Arsenal this season.
With these changes, Arsenal looked a side reborn for a while. Though they weren’t exactly playing the dazzling football that Arsène Wenger’s Invincibles team would have played at their very pomp, it was nevertheless a more attractive brand of football, than the bland unearthing that had been shown against Aston Villa two weeks ago.
Willock was Arsenal’s most dangerous midfielder, with Xhaka and Ceballos creating from deep, but most of Arsenal’s attacks were funnelled down the left-hand side, with the slightly attacking-shy Kieran Tierney and the once again disappointing Willian. Though Leeds had many chances, far more than the visitors, there was plenty for Mikel Arteta and his side to build from in the second-half, especially as Reiss Nelson was introduced at the break for Willian.
That was, until Nicolas Pépé, who found himself in the midst of an argument with Ezgjan Alioski decided to headset the Macedonian player, only to be subsequently shown a red card following a not entirely necessary VAR review.
From there, it was very much one-way traffic. What little they had to build off from the first-half, Arsenal were forced to abandon in the second as Leeds began to pummel the Arsenal defence and the woodwork, with Leeds hitting both the crossbar and the post. Though Arsenal were able to fashion one or two chances of their own for Aubameyang and Saka, Arsenal were very grateful as the final-whistle blew, which still saw tempers rise as Kieran Tierney needed almost half the coaching staff to come and remove him from the field for confronting Ezgjan Alioski, no doubt to reprimand him for the part he played in Pépé’s dismissal.
It had not been the lightning fast reaction that Arteta had been looking for following the congested international break, though there were some positives all the same. Patrick Bamford could count himself unlucky to have not walked away with the Premier League record for goals scored in a single match, such were his misfortunes in front of goal, aided and abetted as always by Bernd Leno, with yet another solid performance.
Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhães are fast becoming two of Mikel Arteta’s most trusted lieutenants, with another solid defensive performance, even if the defence did being to give the air of hanging on for dear life at the end of the match.
But the positives were once again vastly outweighed by the negatives. The same old problems begin to persist Arteta and his team, starting off with the team selection. While Ceballos, Xhaka and Willock had been necessary selections, given Elneny and Partey’s unavailability and Saka’s fatigue, the continued inclusion of Brazilian winger Willian still boggles the mind.
After a dazzling performance in the opening match against Fulham and a moderately comfortable performance against Manchester United, the winger has so far failed to produce anything above an average performance for Arsenal and has so far struggled to reach even that level on more than one occasion.
Yesterday was yet another baffling entry into the mountain of evidence that Arsenal fans have stored to ask why on earth Mikel Arteta continues to pick the winger, as he was this time withdrawn at half-time for youngster Reiss Nelson.
On the other side of the pitch, Nicolas Pépé’s temper got the better of him and has likely seen a chance to cement a place in the first-team evaporate until some time in the New Year, with the Ivorian set to miss the Wolves, Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur matches. Pépé’s performance too had been somewhat feeble. His dazzlingly quick feet and long strides proved to be a handful for the Leeds defence, but the £72m winger was unable to really produce too much to trouble Leeds, aside from a zipped shot in the first half, which never really troubled Illan Meslier, with the Goalkeeper’s subsequent dive looking more like an audition for a role in the next Mission Impossible series than anything else.
Pépé’s performance was, on the whole, better than Willian’s, though that wasn’t saying much and it was likely down to Arteta’s earlier comments about needing to change things that meant he was not sacrificed at half-time as well.
Once again, Arsenal find themselves struggling to create much of anything at all. Mesut Özil’s continued exile seems to be raising further and further questions, even if the German’s social media presence, which featured a rather savage dig at journalist Piers Morgan, has amused, the German’s absence is looking very expensive indeed, not least down to the eye-watering £350,000-a-week that the number ten has been receiving.
Arsenal’s only other creative spark in midfield, aside from Dani Ceballos, is Mattéo Guendouzi, who currently finds himself on loan, banished to Hertha Berlin, resulting in Arsenal stocking far more defensive players than they would have wanted. While rumours have been circulating that Arsenal still hold a vested interest in both Lyon’s Houssem Aouar (who the club failed to sign in the summer) and RB Salzburg’s Dominik Szoboszlai, it seems as though the January window could not come soon enough.
Attention will now turn to Arsenal’s Europa League match against Molde on Thursday evening, with Arsenal in good form in the Europa League, the Gunners will be hoping that a win on Thursday can provide the catalyst for further improvement in the team, rather than another false start.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
3.) Kieran Tierney
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos
28.) Joe Willock (Saka 57’ (Maitland-Niles 93’))
19.) Nicolas Pépé (sent off 51’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
7.) Bukayo Saka
24.) Reiss Nelson
30.) Eddie Nketiah
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Leeds United team:
1.) Illan Meslier
2.) Luke Ayling (Rodrigo 70’)
5.) Robin Koch
6.) Liam Cooper
10.) Ezgjan Alioski
23.) Kalvin Phillips
43.) Mateusz Klich
15.) Stuart Dallas
22.) Jack Harrison (Poveda-Ocampo 80’)
9.) Patrick Bamford
Leeds United subs:
13.) Kiko Casilla
21.) Pascal Struijk
24.) Leif Davis
17.) Hélder Costa
7.) Ian Poveda-Ocampo
11.) Tyler Roberts