A game that went almost as well as Mikel Arteta and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would have wanted, and maybe exactly as anyone bar Marcelo Bielsa could have predicted.
Leeds United, for all their strengths, sometimes feel the perfect side to play against if you’re a big club suffering a dip. They are certainly almost ideal for a team with superior players who have a relatively solid defence, and fast attackers of the calibre of Aubameyang. In that kind of space, he got a hat-trick, to prove the decisive player in this 4-2 win. That victory came from a multitude of other factors, though, not least the very pattern of the game. It wasn’t quite the blockbuster the final scoreline made it look, since Arsenal were at one point winning 4-0 so easily.
This isn’t to really criticise Bielsa, since the net effect of his approach is the near-miracle we’ve seen at Leeds with what is still a fundamentally Championship squad. He also had key injuries here, like that to Kalvin Phillips, but part of the point but he still persists with his ideal regardless of the circumstances.
That isn’t to deny Arteta praise, either. He filled his starting XI with the dribblers who are exactly the type of player who specifically hurt this Leeds approach – among them Martin Odegaard, making his full debut.
The eventual 4-2 outcome was just, well, exactly as you could have predicted. Arsenal revelled in the space, and were generally strong enough to withstand Leeds.
It will no doubt lead to some discussion about Bielsa’s need for more pragmatism. It is merely the risk he accepts as inherent to his approach. The belief is that it will lead to much greater progress over the long term, and a few big scalps, but will occasionally lead to this kind of defeat against superior sides.
That’s especially the case when little moments go against them, as happened here, even after the starting line-up was named. llan Meslier could have done much better with that opening goal.
It was almost an ideal Arsenal attack up until the finish, to be fair, right down to how a star attacker cut in off the flank. How many times have we seen that?
We have seen Aubameyang finish much better than that, mind, but it was still enough to beat Meslier.
The more relevant point was how readily Arsenal were running through Leeds, which was no coincidence, nor a mere consequence of how Bielsa sets up. It was a bit of careful preparation from Arteta as he noted this weakness, and filled the team with some of their niftiest players.
It essentially won the game, even if the Basque temporarily had visions of recent defeats. Bukayo Saka surged through the Leeds half to create havoc, until he went down as Liam Cooper went to challenge. A penalty was initially given by Stuart Atwell until he went to the VAR review, which led to a lot of shouting from the Arsenal camp about how it should have been a penalty and red card, just as happened to them against Wolves.
The referee overturned the penalty, but any sense of grievance was short-lived, because Saka – showing exactly the right kind of attitude – just got on with it. Another surge ended at the feet of Meslier, who again got into trouble, this time as Saka tried to pick-pocket him.
This was a definite penalty and, after Aubameyang’s goal, a definite Arsenal win. The pattern of the game had been set: Leeds surging in chase of an attack, Arsenal able to sit off when they wanted.
They didn’t stop yet, though, and the third was more of the same: a lot of attackers who are good in small spaces keeping the ball, until Hector Bellerin was released for a blinding finish.
If Leeds didn’t quite allow the floodgates to open, Aubameyang was enjoying the flow of much better service, certainly when compared to earlier in the season.
He claimed his first hat-trick since May 2019 with a poacher’s header from Emile Smith-Rowe’s cross.
That was the game decided, but not quite finished. As for what happened next, it was difficult to say whether it is the element of dysfunction still inherent to Arsenal, or the reward that is inherent to that risk Bielsa takes. This is why he persists with the approach.
Arteta got two goals back, and made a bit of pressure for Arteta’s side. The first was a thundering header from Pascal Srtuijk, the second a smart finish from Helder Costa.
Arsenal, for their part, didn’t succumb to the kind of anxiety they can suffer or the kind of chaos Leeds can create.
They smartened up again, and generally shut Leeds then.
Perhaps that’s the maturity that’s gradually developing, perhaps that’s the relative quality gap between the sides.
Either way, after threatening to dip into another spell of bad form, Arsenal found victory again from the visit of Leeds.