For the first time in a very long time, Arsenal played exactly how I’d hoped and expected them to play. With the exception of some ever-so-slightly nervy moments early in the second half when Granit Xhaka slipped back into his Jekyll and Hyde routine, it was fun to watch because it was controlled but devastating. It was a simple enough task on paper but that should have been the same brief for the Everton game (and to a lesser extent, United) and look what happened there. I hate repeatedly going over old ground but those games left a sour taste and rolling teams we really should be rolling is only the first step in regaining some trust.
I’m not going to shed a tear over smashing a depleted Leeds side and even then, Arsenal’s starting XI was younger anyway.The fact that there were were rumours of racial abuse from the home support makes the win all the more sweet and after Rob Holding alerted officials, I suspect it was more than just rumours. It’s not like they’ve been afflicted by COVID cases and the match still went ahead – Arsenal received no such sympathy against Brentford. They’re simply suffering from the inevitable “Bielsa Blowout”, and as much as I’ve liked Leeds and their brand of football since coming back up, it’s no surprise that their players haven’t been able to keep up with the demands of Murderball.
It quickly became apparent from the first whistle what kind of game we had on our hands and you suspect there might be space to exploit when Granit Xhaka is in the opposition half with light years of space. Genuinely a bizarre sight to see. While it always felt like a matter of “when”, not “if”, I was still surprised it took as long as it did for Arsenal to take the lead. Saka and Lacazette both wasted good opportunities and Partey was also denied when he opted to shoot at Meslier’s near post with a ‘safe’ effort. When Martinelli got his first sight of goal, it was a different story with the finish as clinical as ever after dogged work by Lacazette to immediately win the ball back. The second left him with far more work to do and while far less easy on the eye, was just as impressive as the opener against West Ham. Xhaka did well to find him and the pass was weighted perfectly, but Martinelli’s first touch let him down slightly and left the ball under his feet. Not being at full speed, Drameh was able to close the gap and put him off balance. With another closing him down and Meslier rushing out, Martinelli created a problem for himself because he’d closed off some shooting angles so what does he do? He just dinks it over the ‘keeper. I can’t stress enough how difficult that finish is, running at those kinds of speeds, with a player either side and an onrushing keeper but the guy has so much quality in his finishing. In the space of 3 games, we’ve seen a deft, very precise one-touch finish over his shoulder against Newcastle, a first touch and finish that Henry would have been proud of and a dinked finish that only the very best in the Premier League can pull off. It’s impossible not to smile watching him terrorise teams.
The barrage didn’t stop there and Lacazette and Saka both managed to have another stab at goal, with the latter squirming his shot in after a slight deflection. After some poor luck in front of goal in recent weeks, it was long overdue in the end and Arsenal ended the half with the most shots on target since Opta started collecting such data.
After half time, the silliness started and Granit Xhaka and his thick skull decided that his fragile ego had been hurt. After needlessly winding Leeds up by blocking a free kick and facing some backlash, he went in high and late on Raphina and was lucky not to see red (although far less lucky than one Harry Kane). We’ve seen it time and again from him and if he can’t keep his cool even at 3-0 up, when can you? It’s who he is and for all his qualities, this issue is one that is never going away. Arsenal generally haven’t had the rub of the green this season but it’s fair to say they got away with one there. While you’d like to think a red card wouldn’t have been enough to throw away 3 points, Elland Road is not the venue you want to imbue some false hope because even without the red, Leeds benefitted from the supposed injustice.
I don’t think there’s much to read into with the penalty concession. Ben White probably wanted to prove a point in going back there (and I’m sure was also subject to some words of encouragement from the locals) and we’ve seen it plenty of times before with young defenders – much rather he gets it out of his system in inconsequential games like this than when it matters.
In the end, it wouldn’t have been right without a Smith Rowe goal and even coming off the bench, he was able to read the pulse of the game and have an impact. The ball from Odegaard was far from easy, and the delicious, almost painful delay in the final ball is also what orchestrated the opportunity. Reeling players in is what creates the space elsewhere and he has the technical security and intelligence to do this on a more regular basis.
After the game, Martinelli couldn’t resist mentioning how he wanted a third before quickly getting back on script about all of the “good teamplay” rhetoric that we’re used to hearing. Arteta was happy to acknowledge the importance of points on the board, with the “pressure” it puts on the others and I couldn’t agree more. It might feel like “enjoy it while it lasts” but with many of the postponed fixtures featuring teams that also have European commitments, it’s only going to get harder to maintain consistency for them. City’s title last year was massively helped by their unique squad depth, which set them apart from everyone else amidst long term squad fatigue and COVID outbreaks. If Arsenal sneak into the Top Four by the end of the season and benefit from managing the pandemic better than their rivals I won’t be losing sleep over it.