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1 point, but Pepe’s moment of madness only the peak of struggles

Arsenal scrape a point, but it’s another match to forget about.

As if the International break hadn’t gone poor enough, the recent month of struggles for Arsenal continued into the match against Leeds United.

Arsenal came out with a ‘hard fought’ point, something I hesitate to say given the overall performance was anything but ‘filled with fight’. Yet when a side faces 40 minutes of constant onslaught against a team that covers a lot ground, maybe that’s the best they could have hoped for given the circumstances.

Before the match I predicted a 2-2 draw, so if we are just looking at the end outcome, maybe getting a point away at Elland Road is something to consider the bare minimum of ‘okay’. But with a prediction of 2-2, as I made, it’s comes with the notion that your team has managed to get themselves two goals and put on some degree of a performance.

A 0-0 draw, out possessed substantially (66%-34%), out shot 25-9, a red card 52 minutes in, and bailed out time and time again by great saves and your opponent hitting the woodwork 3 times? That leaves you with absolutely nothing to take forward except the 1 measly point that keeps you in 11th place, surrounded by teams with a game in hand. The only player that should hold their head high to any extent is probably Bernd Leno.

Sure the defense kept a clean sheet and they can take some solace in the fact that they only conceded 4 shots on target (plus 3 shots hitting the frame that don’t count), but they also conceded 25 shots including 13 in the first half when they were level 11-11.

From halfway through the first half, into the second half when Pepe got his shameful red card, through the rest of the game it was a poor performance. Early in the first half, aside from a few errant passes and sloppy bits of technical play, Arsenal and Leeds traded jabs in a punches, cagey match. But as it wore on, it was evident Leeds were the better side on the day, and they will feel hard done by the result.

That’s not to say Arsenal didn’t have a few chances late in the game including when Aubameyang hit a shot in the 82′ that really should be called a handball by the letter of the law. Leeds would have felt the word “justice” had no meaning at Elland Road given the nature of Liam Cooper’s arm making contact as he slid to block the shot, but the crook of his elbow is up in the air and certainly not within the frame of his body. In the end VAR passed on the opportunity to give Arsenal a shot from the spot.

Just a minute later, Hector Bellerin made an very nice break from the back to carry the ball about 50 yards and play a peach of through ball into Saka’s path. It’s a situation that you’d really like to see Saka finish from, but his tried to take it around the keeper which pushed him wide of the frame. From there, the keeper scrambled and made the save. There were a couple other half chances, small glimpses of potential, but it’s another performance that leaves you keying in on two specific opportunities because there were so few to scrutinize.

What makes this match even more frustrating from a supporters perspective may be the fact that Arteta’s lineup was generally what most have been clamoring to see. Obviously Partey, Elneny, and Luiz were missing and missed, but Arteta used a 4-3-3, played Aubameyang down the center, played Pepe, and played Willock. It took just 52 minutes for every “Pepe must play” article and blog that was written over the break to be spoiled.

It’s something I can’t help but chuckle at. I mean, what a stupid decision from a player that has gone to media and complained about playing time, has won the supporter’s backing and has them unanimously on his side, and spoils it by putting his head into an opponent’s. It’s a soft headbutt, if you even want to call it that, I get it, but it’s a red card. It just is. And you can show me all the pushing back and forth that happened before it, but if it’s that easy for a defender to get into your head and cause you to lose the plot like that — you just might not be cut out for this level. If Pepe is given another run in the Arsenal starting lineup before mid-February I will be shocked.

But we must also scrutinize the game through two lenses. Simply pointing at the red card as the ‘game changer’ feels like a cop out. It was a pivotal point. It did feel, at that moment, like there was a consensus that Arsenal wouldn’t be leaving with three points, but the performance when both sides were at full strength wasn’t that great either.

Arsenal conceded 13 shots in the first half, a worrying amount when the 4-3-3 system always runs the risk of backline exposure compared to Arteta 3-4-3. Arsenal had a few good moments of possession, but certainly were bested in that regard, both percentage-wise and effectiveness of the possession. And Arsenal were overrun in the midfield with the pairing that led them to their late success last season, even with the addition of Willock to offer more.

It’s doesn’t look good, it doesn’t bode well, and it makes the next 5 Premier League matches feel incredibly dire. Not just the need for points, although that is always the priority, but the need for performances. For glimpses of something to hang our hat on that suggests progress is being made to address the attack.

It’s Wolverhampton, Tottenham, Burnley, Southampton, and Everton, and I would be lying if my confidence hasn’t wavered after today.

Here’s a few quick takeaways:

It doesn’t matter where Aubameyang stands if he doesn’t get the ball

After yesterday, we can definitively say that it does not matter if Aubameyang plays centrally, or on the left, if Arsenal continue to supply him with no scoring opportunities. Yes, he plays a role in getting himself into those spots, but he’s a player that capitalizes of half-chances and good service. He can’t score off no chances and his location doesn’t appear to be as large of an issue we may have thought. I would still like to see him central moving forward, but we will see what Arteta thinks after this match.

Even after a few games, Arsenal really missed what Partey can bring to a midfield

When it comes to Leeds, you know they are going to throw man-to-man defense at you, try to demonstrate their technical skills, and get at you with numerical superiorities. Without the ball, Leeds love a good press. Yesterday, it was clear the backline, and team as a whole, struggled to play through the lines and advance the ball. It’s a quality that Partey has instantly had a positive effect on and missing his skill really hurt us.

From the midfield perspective, he brings a very physical presence, technical security, and a drive to progress the ball positively. On multiple occasions, the backline struggled to find the feet of Ceballos or Xhaka, who subsequently struggled to turn up field. Partey offers that in his game and he’s just a better midfielder. Who partners him and offers attack? A real problem to sort out.

In a team devoid of creators, missing the few that can hurts A LOT

If there is one optimistic view I have, besides that Leno is in fact a great keeper, it’s that the lineup was missing a few players that are likely to play significant roles in whatever success Arsenal have. I’m talking about Partey, David Luiz, Bukayo Saka (subbed on later in the match).

Luiz has been a contentious figure, and he certainly has his downsides, but he’s a player that is good with the ball at his feet and can help create chances. Saka has clearly established himself as one of Arsenal’s better attacking players and one of the few that are capable of creating chances AND getting on the end of them. Finally, we already talked bout Partey and his inevitable influence.

I’m not suggesting that is enough to compete for major honors, but it makes a big difference to have all three missing when Arsenal’s attacking creation will need to be dispersed throughout the side, rather than funneled through the likes of de Bruyne or Fernandes, like other team’s have in their side.

Arsenal are seemingly an incomplete side when they have their players are full-fitness, so what are they labeled when they are missing a handful of a regulars? I expect certainly things to get better. When players return, as the side sticks with this 4-back system, as Arteta develops. But I also expect that this run of games have shown us the side Arsenal are — an incomplete, inconsistent, work in progress.

They may be a better side than what they are showing now, but how much better? Upcoming fixtures may show us.

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