With a not altogether convincing 1-2 win over West Ham United last Sunday and a new contract for manager Mikel Arteta, Arsenal entered Sunday afternoon’s match with Leeds United with a fair amount of confidence.
The only absentee from the Arsenal squad, was Benjamin White. The defender had still not fully recovered from his injury that kept him out of the aforementioned West Ham game, which allowed Cédric Soares to come in for the hapless Nuno Tavares, but with Takehiro Tomiyasu filling in at left-back and Cédric dropping into his favoured right-back position.
Arsenal started brightly, however, Leeds really hustled them. Under new manager Jesse Marsch, it is easy to see that Leeds are really trying hard to stay in the division. They pressed as high as they could and caused some of Arsenal’s less press-resistant players to struggle to retain possession.
However, despite all of Leeds’ pressure, they eventually succomed to that cruellest of mistresses…fate.
A poor back pass to goalkeeper Ilan Meslier from Luke Ayling, meant that the Frenchman dawdled a fraction of a second longer than usual, which handed the impetus to Eddie Nketiah, who raced forward and managed to take the ball from the goalkeeper’s foot and fire Arsenal into the lead.
It was a cruel blow to Leeds’ diaphragm and it was clear that Meslier would not get over this one quickly.
This seemed to knock the proverbial wind out of Leeds’ sails and soon Arsenal found themselves two up, once again courtesy of Eddie Nketiah.
Some fantastic footwork from Gabriel Martinelli allowed the Brazilian the opportunity to pull back a low cross into Nketiah’s feet who, despite the ball being behind him, was able to angle off a left-footed shot, which beat Meslier to give Arsenal a second goal.
But the game was only just beginning in terms of big moments. As Gabriel Martinelli chased a loose ball into the Leeds corner, former Arsenal youth product Luke Ayling flew into a two-footed, studs-up challenge on the young Brazilian, mercilessly bringing him down.
Unbelievably, referee Chris Kavanagh only deemed this to be a yellow card offence, before VAR instructed him to take a closer look. On closer inspection, Kavanagh upgraded his yellow into a red and gave Ayling his marching orders, reducing Leeds to 10 men.
It was a hammer blow to Leeds and they went in at half-time looking very much like a team that had been on the receiving end of very one-way traffic.
The second half was a frustrating half for both teams. For Arsenal’s part, this was mainly down to the myriad of chances they created that went unpunished. Gabriel Martinelli, Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard all going close from various efforts, but nothing seemed to come off.
Try as they might, Arsenal simply couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net in the second half. Leeds were chasing shadows for almost all of the second half and yet Arsenal simply couldn’t make them pay.
For Leeds, they managed to get themselves back in the game after they undone the hard work of set-piece coach Nicolas Jover, after Diego Llorente managed to smash in a far-post effort after a flick on from a corner.
This was where their frustration grew. No matter how hard they tried, Leeds also couldn’t seem to get near Arsenal’s goal to really have many efforts.
Though there were definitely a few anxious Arsenal fans watching through their fingers as Ilan Meslier repeatedly put himself up for a free header, their anxiety was unlikely to be assuaged as Nicolas Pépé dawdled from Meslier’s positioning and refused to shoo into an open goal, giving Leeds back possession.
The final whistle was a merciful release for the Emirates crowd, but they will be heartened by the result nevertheless. Final 2 of 5 is over.
Arsenal had pushed so hard and they had worked so well together that it was a victory that they, on the whole, deserved.
There were a few standout performers, namely Eddie Nketiah, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Takehiro Tomiyasu.
For Nketiah, it was a performance to remember as he netted a brace and found himself at the very heart of all things that made Arsenal tick. For Ødegaard, there were shades of Mesut Özil at his pomp as the Norweigian strut his stuff on the Emirates pitch, directing passes all over the place and creating chances left, right and centre. Gabriel Martinelli was his usual mesmeric self. The Brazilian was simply too much to handle for Leeds today and he wove in and out of challenges like they weren’t even there.
But one of the unsung heroes of the day, will likely be Takehiro Tomiyasu. While Mohamed Elneny and Bukayo Saka were also worthy of praise, Tomiyasu, who has fast become Arsenal’s new Mr. Dependable, was indispensable at left-back. With Kieran Tierney injured and the chaos of Nuno Tavares not something to gamble on just now, Tomiyasu’s versatility, not to mention his ambidexterity was a key asset for the club.
Next up is the biggest game of the season. If Arsenal beat Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday, they will have sealed UEFA Champions League football for next season. It is a game that is already nervy before the added importance of top 4 is thrown in, but if Arsenal hold firm, they could just have their bitter rivals sunk and that would be a truly remarkable outcome for everyone.
32.) Aaron Ramsdale
17.) Cédric Soares
16.) Rob Holding
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
18.) Takehiro Tomiyasu
25.) Mohamed Elneny
34.) Granit Xhaka
7.) Bukayo Saka (Pépé 68’)
8.) Martin Ødegaard (c)
35.) Gabriel Martinelli (Smith Rowe 78’)
30.) Eddie Nketiah (Lacazette 92’)
1.) Bernd Leno
69.) Zak Swanson
20.) Nuno Tavares
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
87.) Charlie Patino
65.) Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand
10.) Emile Smith Rowe
19.) Nicolas Pépé
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Leeds United team:
1.) Ilan Meslier
2.) Luke Ayling 🔴
5.) Robin Koch
14.) Diego Llorente
3.) Junior Firpo
43.) Klich (Bate 45’)
23.) Kalvin Phillips
10.) Raphina (Rodrigo 60’)
20.) Daniel James
22.) Jack Harrison
30.) Gelhardt (Struijk 29’)
Leeds United subs:
13.) Kristoffer Klaesson
21.) Pascal Struijk
33.) Leo Fuhr Hjelde
26.) Lewis Bate
35.) Charlie Cresswell
63.) Archie Gray
46.) Jamie Shackleton
42.) Sam Greenwood