In a match that seemed ominous from the first minute, well second technically, Arsenal were pushed to their defensive limits and challenged by Leeds United. Another sparkling combination leads to a brilliant finish from Saka, but a very poor second half performance is saved by some stout defense and goalkeeping heroics.
In the lead up to the match, Jesse Marsch seemed confident in the slow and steady progression his side was making. “I see the work that goes on here every day, my belief in this group is as strong as it’s ever been,” Marsch said. “I think the first half against Palace is the best that we’ve played since I’ve been here.” Needless to say, even in a face of a 5-match slide, the Leeds manager felt his team were capable of getting a result.
In a continuation of a tactical selection Arteta made against Liverpool, Tomiyasu was returned to the left back position. It seems that Arteta enjoyed what he offered the side from a defensive standpoint, and as a technical player that probably lies on a spectrum somewhere between Zinchenko and Tierney. Other than that, Arteta rolled out the same team that has earned the side 24 of 27 points to start the year.
In the second minute, the game would have to be stopped after electricity went out and refereeing communications, and seemingly goal line technology, failed. Players stood around for around 10 minutes before the match was formally suspended and they returned to their respective locker rooms. As a spectator at home, I found myself watching idling fans in the stands, waiting as impatiently and curiously as myself, for the restart. It was not an impressive usage of my time…
After roughly another 20 minutes, and a quick second warm-up (boy is it dire television when we are showing the referees get limber for their duties), the match resumed. You never know how a break like this is goin to affect a game, and you can really only speculate in the aftermath on the harm it may have had, but it did seem like Arsenal — a side that has started matches quickly this season — struggled to get out of the blocks and grab a hold of the game. On the other side, Leeds came out flying for their home fans and deployed a press that really caused Arsenal some problems early.
It was a battle of wills as Arsenal attempted to get themselves on the ball, knock it around, pull and stretch the Leeds defensive structure and take the sting out of their press, while Leeds attempted to ramp up the pace of play and frazzle or stun a usually composed Gunner side.
For the opening 15-20 minutes, Leeds probably got their way. While they failed to capitalize in terms of goals, there were a few efforts on goal and their press forced Arsenal into a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes and haggard play. Their past moment may have come when it took an excellent paw from Ramsdale to push a ball away from danger during a scramble in the box.
Around the 20th minute mark, Arsenal seemed to settle at a least a little. They didn’t have an easy time making headway, but thanks to Ødegaard, they started to find little pockets of space centrally to break the press and distribute into the wide channels. They had at least begun to answer Leeds’ questions when Gabriel Jesus fired over the bar from close range.
Finally, Arsenal capitalized on the spell of better control, albeit without dangerous chances, when Leeds’ Rodrigo sprayed a cross-field, backwards pass to try to relieve pressure and ended up playing to Saka. Saka nodded it Ødegaard who was quick on the scene to help, who then slipped in a peach of a ball to find Saka’s stride. The finish from Saka is exceptional as he roofs the shot from the right side of the six yard box. The goal gives Arsenal the 1-0 lead and marks the second straight Premier League game with an assists for Martin Ødegaard and marks 7 goals or assists for Saka in his last 7 starts. All in all, Arsenal’s star winger now has 9 G/A in all competitions this year. The right side of the attack starting to click into place and be consistently dangerous.
Arsenal would maintain most the control over the ball, but at half time, despite having over 60% of the ball, the Gunners has been outshot 8-7. Leeds had set out to create havoc with their press, they had clear marked Tomiyasu and his weaker left foot as a press trigger for them to trap and clamp down on, and they had worked chances from their efforts.
As an Arsenal fan, it felt very conflicting. Up 1-0, but the match felt like it teetered on a knife’s edge. Would Arsenal go out in the second half, dominate the ball, work out the kinks, exhaust the press, and control their way to a win or would Leeds maintain their spark, improve their pressing plans, and bottle up Arsenal? Both teams would have had a right to claim the favor and this debate seemed to be settled in the 46th minute.
Leeds came out firing and Marc Roca fired in a long range cross to the back post. Tomiyasu makes the necessary intervention but puts the ball up for grabs in the center of the box, on top of the six-yard box. Bamford and Gabriel get physical with each other — not for the last time — and Bamford nudges Gabriel through the back to secure the positioning and goal. The referee blows the whistle for a foul and VAR declares their agreement, or at least states there was no ‘clear an obvious’ error. Honestly, Arsenal may be a little fortunate. Both teams will have felt the call should go their way and both could point to precedents that side with them. In the end, I believe that’s a call that has to stay with the field ruling, and that falls Arsenal’s way. It’s too slight and subjective of a decision to let VAR slow it down and dictate. I think the right call is made, but hey, I’m a pretty biased blogger.
The controversy was far from over in this one as crosses and shots and opportunities were punched, pawed, and blocked away by Arsenal defenders and Ramsdale. In the 60th minute, Jack Harrison clips a little ball into the box to try and find Roca and it comes off Saliba’s arm. What I find most interesting, and unfortunate, is that Ramsdale is right behind the duo, waiting to scoop up the ball. In fact, the handball probably made Ramsdale do more work to collect the pass than he would have had it not hit Saliba. To add an extra layer of controversy, it’s quite clear that before the cross comes in, a Leeds player receives the ball in the wings and is clearly offsides. This was either completely missed by VAR or deemed outside the scope of their jurisdiction. It would feel odd if this were the case, and really between the missed offsides call and the fact that Ramsdale probably collects the pass with ease, it all comes off as a storm of rotten luck. The ball clearly hits Saliba’s hand, it’s a penalty, and it was awarded.
Fortunately, the all omniscient ball knows the offsides existed and Bamford’s penalty is smashed wide of the post. The ball never lies. Ramsdale jumped the right way, he definitely has a good amount of the distance covered, but it’s impossible to say if he would have saved the shot had it been on frame. The most we can say is he would have put his best for forward, but it makes no difference. Arsenal maintain the lead and are ready to see this one out… right? RIGHT!?
Arsenal are put under pressure for the remaining 30 minutes as Gabriel becomes a wall of blocked shots and Ramsdale sweeps up everything that gets through. The goalkeeping was phenomenal and he couldn’t have picked a better day to reclaim that shot-stopping form that raised so many eyebrows when he initially arrived. If he came into today looking to make a statement for the England job, the statement was made. He ends with 4 saves, 2 punches, 1 high claim, 10 recoveries, and seemed to be everywhere he needed to be force difficult angles and put any close range shooters off.
Arteta, clearly sensing his side didn’t have the stuff to get back into this one and control their way out of Elland Road with a win, began to shore up the back. Vieira, Tierney, Holding, and Nketiah were brought in for fresh legs and defensive reinforcements, and I have to say, it was probably the least comfortable I have ever been with the “Holding Lockdown Special”.
Controversy hit its peak in the 92nd minute when an innocuous ball over the top is poised to be easily collected by Ramsdale, but Gabriel and Bamford tangle up once more. Seemed like Bamford made a late run to still get onto it, or at least force Ramsdale to pick up it, Gabriel puts his body in between that and seals Bamford off who barges through his back. As Gabriel goes down, is there a kick out or his legs flailing into Bamford? Either way there is contact, Bamford hits the deck like he’s been shot and it all kicks off. The refs have a conference and a red card is shown to Gabriel along with a second penalty kick being awarded.
Look, before we talk about the VAR intervention — thank god — I’m going to give some opinions and thoughts, as the blogs title suggests I do. It may be the center ref that pulls the card, but it’s the line judge that makes the ruling given his proximity and eyes on the play. To be honest, I’m not sure what he’s seen or what he thinks he’s seen after everyone got to view the replay that VAR would show. It all feels like two refs make a gargantuan call after neither saw what they clearly believed they saw. I can forgive the center ref, he knows he’s in no position and confers with his help, but what the line judge is doing recommending that call I cannot figure out.
The only thing I can assume is that the line judge doesn’t see the clear shoulder barge from Bamford through the back of Gabriel, but does see the kick out. From there, he assumes its a more innocent coming together and a rash reaction from the Arsenal defender, and therefore comes to that conclusion.
VAR intervenes and it’s pretty obvious that Bamford is an absolute prick who uses the opportunity to exert some frustration through Gabriel’s back and commits the foul. Should Gabriel have still been sent off without a penalty? Perhaps, although when you watch the replay there isn’t a whole lot of contact in the kick out either, but we know from Keown there doesn’t have to be. Maybe he will receive a retrospective punishment if that’s the case, but I can’t pretend I know how I would react to taking a really cynical smash from the behind when the ball is so obviously never going to be reached. It obvious to see why Arteta was fuming on the sidelines and VAR had to intervene. Maybe it’s just a part of the game, but it feels a whole heck of a lot like attempting to cheat at the end of a match.
VAR intervenes, the call is overturned, Gabriel is shown a yellow card, but there was still time left. A last gasp corner kick is cleared, the whistle blows after almost 100 minutes, plus a 30 minute suspension, and it’s so easy to see why Mikel was fired up, almost pissed off, on the sidelines as he watched his team gut their way to a grueling win. It’s 27 points out of 30 to start the year, it would come to mean a 4 point breath of air between City, and it was another example of this Arsenal side squaring up with their opposition and saying, “you’re not getting the better of me today, whatever that means I have to do”.
People seemed pissed off at Gabriel at the end, and maybe it was a little foolish, but one a day where he was the better of the two center backs, and a wall at the back himself, I doubt the anger will last given its lack of justification. It wasn’t a clean Arsenal win and it didn’t match the electric form we have seen from Arsenal to start the Premier League campaign, but you have to tip your cap a little to a team that continues to find ways to win each and every day — either their way or the hard way. This win marks the best start to an Arsenal campaign in their history and THAT is a record worth smiling about.
Check out my list of standout performers and worries from Arsenal’s win over Leeds.