Before I start, I can only apologise for this ridiculous title but Bielsa’s clearly-not-waterproof, puffer jacket was too hilarious not to mention. I know he’s a fairly resilient guy and is happy to live a modest life but surely someone could have given him a raincoat.
After two disappointing losses on the bounce, it was imperative to get back to winning ways before facing Benfica on Thusday and they did just that. Leeds are a funny side; they have the joint-second worst defensive record in the league and you never really know which Leeds is going to show up. They comfortably beat Leicester only a fortnight ago and can go toe to toe with anyone on their day… but yesterday was not their day.
Arteta was rightfully undeterred by those disappointments with an unseen lineup that accommodated Ødegaard alongside Smith Rowe from the onset after the idea was cameoed as we chased the game against Villa. With his first chance at playing with a clean slate in front of him, his addition gave me the same feeling as I’ve had whenever I’ve watched Partey this season: he’s better than whatever was there before. The same can also be said for Smith Rowe, so to have the two working in tandem, threading things together with seemingly minimal effort bodes well going forward.
In many ways, the first half was no different to what we saw against Wolves, save for the last few minutes. On both occasions, the immediate intensity was too much and there was a real familiarity to the flat-track bully approach that Wenger’s Arsenal sides so often adopted against teams “beneath” us (although that’s a precarious word to use this season).The difference really was just end product. That responsibility had Aubameyang firmly in its sights after he was reinstated centrally and he scored with his first sight of goal. It was a brilliant finish and I think any criticism levelled at Meslier for conceding is a disservice to the effort; he really didn’t help his case as the game went on but he was clearly blind-sided.
Our end product is also the reason why I’m able to sit here and only briefly mention the V-word instead of another lengthy tirade 👇.
Okay, we have a penalty rescinded. As minimal as the contact appeared to be, there’s still three things I really struggle to understand:
- If it’s against us, particularly under the challenge of a Luiz or a Xhaka, we all know the answer.
- It wasn’t a clear and obvious error, so I don’t know why they’re getting involved in the first place.
- The speed at which Saka’s moving and the fact he’d already brushed off one challenge meant only minimal contact was needed. He’s clearly not taken a Salah swan dive and the contact has caused him to lose his footing without playing the ball.
Thankfully, that didn’t matter because Saka is a man possessed and closed down the Leeds backline – on his own, from the halfway line – and won another penalty minutes later after Meslier’s sloppy footwork. It always bothers me when commentators say things like “oh, that’s a great penalty” when they’ve stuck it down the middle. Granted, there’s a craft to it but I think there’s a tendency for praise even when it’s not deserved. In Aubameyang’s case, it was a great penalty and no ‘keeper in the world is saving a shot struck with that kind of pace into the side setting.
Saka’s involvement in the third goal reminded me of something Raheem Sterling did against José and his doomed clown show on Saturday. It’s easy enough to draw comparisons between the two because they’re both left-footed, right-sided forwards but it was the way in which we were able to drag players out of position while maintaining the patience and composure as the move transitioned into a “new phase”. Arteta’s influence on Sterling was already well-documented, so it’s been interesting to see Saka’s meteoric progress out on the right.
On this occasion, Saka was given the space to do his thing and when the momentum was lost, there were players queuing up in the right positions to get things started again. Even when the ball was almost lost, Smith Rowe was also able to fend off players around him and keep the move alive and Ceballos had the composure and ability to slip in Bellerín. Between Ceballos, Ødegaard, Saka and Smith Rowe, there was real pace and fluidity to their interplay throughout and Xhaka continued his fine form doing the rest.
As is the nature of the club, no match is entirely plain sailing but on this occasion, my only real gripes are with Arteta’s choice of substitutions. If Saka’s post-match comments are anything to go by, Arteta was indeed aware of what kind of response to expect from Leeds after half time, saying “if there’s any team that’s going to come back fighting with so much fighting spirit, it’s going to be Leeds”. If that’s the case, why on Earth is Willian the answer? He’d already failed the “come on as a substitute when the game’s already over and get some confidence back” test with flying colours when he came on against West Brom last month. On this occasion, it was a doubly bad because Leeds not only came out fighting but he replaced Smith Rowe in the process. Who he replaced isn’t even the issue, but rather what we lose whenever he steps onto the pitch. In an entirely non-hyperbolic descriptor, he is simply dead weight.
Thursday was no doubt playing on Arteta’s mind and Smith Rowe is fast approaching Saka-levels of “protect him at all costs”, but why not bring on Pépé or Martinelli? Both have futures at the club, both are actually hungry and the risk ahead of Thursday would be minimal in 30 minutes of playing time. It’s a shame to keep highlighting one particular player but he is Arteta’s whopping, sore thumb and there’s now a real dichotomy between everything else we’re seeing.. and Willian. Relationships and combinations continue to blossom, Ødegaard’s assimilation was seamless and Arteta has mostly shaken the kind of rigidity that shackled his decision-making until the Chelsea game, with some real, tangible progress. And yet, he remains. The only real consolation Willian has left is he continues to be played out of position because a 19-year-old has essentially made themselves undroppable. He didn’t look comfortable on the left wing with Tierney behind him and he looks even less comfortable with another right-footed player behind him. I thought we’d reached the end of a never-ending headache with a certain players January departure but I fear this is going to be another one.
I was also less than enthused to see Elneny come on because an additional forward and midfield reshuffle would have probably sufficed but given the other options on the bench and the importance of our matches ahead, I could live with it.
He’s looked a forlorn figure in recent weeks, which is no surprise because of his off-field worries but even before that, he’s not exactly been his usual self. That’s just as much a circumstance of the team behind him as his own decline, because he’s not the kind of player to just make things happen and our dependency on his goals last season have probably stoked that particular idea.
Sometimes a break is enough and other players stepping up to the mark will have no doubt helped allay some of that pressure in easing him back into the team. In hindsight, easing was a bit of an understatement and I definitely didn’t see him putting on a clinic but the timing couldn’t be better.
It would also be remiss of me to not mention a widely-held assertion that Aubameyang is simply a finisher and can’t link play, because he was instrumental in both the third and fourth goals. The dinked cross to Bellerín gave birth to the next phase of the move started by Saka, and his lay-off to Saka on the halfway line unlocked the door into Leeds’ half of the pitch. Speaking of which, I really have no idea if Smith Rowe was shooting or crossing. I’ve watched it more times than either of the two penalty decisions and I still can’t decide but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a very deliberate with everything he does and sees things that many don’t.
As for Aubameyang, if not for the woodwork and a brilliant tackle by an Arsenal academy product in Ayling, he would have had five to his name and that’s what you get from him when he gets the right kind of service. He’s the one tied down to a long and expensive contract and regardless of his conditioning, his age profile and skillset shouldn’t leave him with the dirty work. He won’t always be afforded the time and space that Leeds gave him, which is reason enough to play him on the wing from time to time but going forward, I hope Arteta’s priority is figuring out how to enable Aubameyang in that manner every week.
I even heard him giving orders to Bellerín(?) with a conveniently-placed microphone just before half time, which well and truly rubbishes the idea that he’s only a captain because he leads by example (words I’ve used before), although that’s by no means a negative in and of itself.
It’s just good to have him back and that seems like a good note to end on.