Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds have one of the most popular teams to watch in the Premier League this season. The games are usually high-scoring, the scoreline’s enthralling and football dazzling. Despite this, Arsenal showed no signs of trepidation as they entered Sunday evening’s match.
With injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, Dani Ceballos and Cédric Soares were brought in to cover, meanwhile Bernd Leno and David Luiz returned to the side following their red cards in the defeat to Wolves.
It can be difficult for managers figuring out how to defeat Leeds. While their defence leaves a lot to be desired, last year’s Championship winners have more than enough quality in their attack to punish any team that dare commit too many men forward.
Despite this, Arsenal came out of the blocks all guns blazing. The creativity overload of Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe definitely aided Arsenal’s attack, with the supplementary silkiness of Bukayo Saka.
It didn’t take long for Arsenal’s hard-work to pay off. The runs of Ødegaard and Smith Rowe created space for Granit Xhaka’s slide-rule pass into the feet of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who’s silky step-overs and body-feints were enough to bamboozle former-Gunner Luke Ayling and the former Borussia Dortmund hitman rattled the back of the net in emphatic fashion to give the Gunners a well-deserved lead.
It wouldn’t be an Arsenal game if there wasn’t some kind of controversy however and sure enough VAR supplied some. After Liam Cooper brought down Saka in the penalty area, Stuart Atwell immediately pointed to the spot without a second’s hesitation, however, VAR assistant Andre Marriner told the referee to check the incident out on the VAR screen. The decision was remarkably overturned. Given David Luiz’s incident only two weeks previously, it seemed an unnecessarily harsh decision on Saka.
Arsenal didn’t have to wait long to get their penalty however. Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier failed to clear his lines and in a desperate attempt to keep the ball away from the high-pressing Saka, brought the youngster down in the penalty area and this time, there was no mistake at all and Aubameyang dutifully dispatched from twelve-yards to double the home side’s lead.
Arsenal continued to attack before the half was out and after some silky footwork in the penalty area from Dani Ceballos, the Spaniard was able to dink the ball throigh the legs of the defender for Héctor Bellerín, who took a touch seemingly too far outwide, only for the right-back to thump home Arsenal’s third.
Half-time was a welcome occurrence for Leeds as displayed in their two changes at half-time, but for Arsenal, it was an unnecessary distraction.
Not that their performance stuttered, barely two minutes after the interval, Aubameyang rounded off his hat-trick when Emile Smith Rowe’s shot-cum-cross found Aubameyang at the far-post who headed home in style.
From then on, Leeds soon found their way back into the game. A thumping header from Pascal Struijk from a corner and a beautifully worked finish from substitute Hélder Costa where enough to invoke ripples of fear from a fanbase that has seen Arsenal throw away similar leads to this one before, but the final whistle blew on a 4-2 victory for Arsenal.
It was a superb performance from Arsenal, despite conceding two goals. A hat-trick for a talismanic captain who has been in need of some form for a while now is always a welcome addition, but the defensive solidity of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos aided matters a lot too.
Mikel Arteta seemed to take a leaf from Pep Guardiola’s book as well; Arsenal seemed to play with a false-nine, but with them rotating. One minute it was Aubameyang, the next Saka and the next it was Smith Rowe or Ødegaard and Leeds seemingly had no way to block it.
The movement of the Arsenal forward-line was backed-up by the remarkably press-resistant midfield pivot of Ceballos and Xhaka. Though the two have come under fire for their lackadaisical passing or inability to beat the press of anyone who comes near them, they coped with Leeds remarkably well.
Many have put Xhaka’s recent resurgence in form down to the added cover of Thomas Partey, however, with the Ghanian missing against Leeds, he seemed to cope just fine.
It seems strange to have too many negative critiques from a game in which Arsenal won fairly comfortably, but the performance of substitute Willian was fairly close to taking the sheen off of a fairly immaculate performance.
The Brazilian seems to be on a completely different page to his teammates and his inability to track back or to dribble with the ball begs the question as to why Arteta insists on introducing him every game.
Willian seems to be on another planet entirely and though his lovely ball through for Saka in the second-half showed the vision he has, it’s worrying that he doesn’t use it more. Outside of that one incident, the former Chelsea man lost the ball the same amount in just under half an hour of play than Emile Smith Rowe (the man he replaced) managed in 62 minutes, a truly worrying statistic and seemingly emblematic of the poor performances Willian seems to churn out every week.
The attention now turns to the return of the Europa League, as Arsenal face-off against Benfica in their Round of 32 first-leg.
1.) Bernd Leno
2.) Héctor Bellerín
23.) David Luis
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
17.) Cédric Soares
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Dani Ceballos (Holding 89’)
32.) Emile Smith Rowe (Willian 62’)
11.) Martin Ødegaard (Elneny 78’)
7.) Bukayo Saka
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
33.) Maty Ryan
16.) Rob Holding
22.) Pablo Marí
21.) Calum Chambers
25.) Mohamed Elneny
35.) Gabriel Martinelli
19.) Nicolas Pépé
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Leeds United team:
1.) Ilan Meslier
46.) Jamie Shackleton
2.) Luke Ayling
6.) Liam Cooper (c)
10.) Ezgjan Alioski (Huggins 53’)
21.) Pascal Struijk
15.) Stuart Dallas
43.) Mateusz Klich (Roberts 45’)
22.) Jack Harrison (Hélder Costa 45’)
9.) Patrick Bamford
Leeds United subs:
13.) Kiko Casilla
24.) Leif Davis
35.) Charlie Cresswell
52.) Niall Huggins
47.) Jack Jenkins
17.) Hélder Costa
19.) Pablo Hernández
30.) Joe Gelhardt
11.) Tyler Roberts