Arsenal 4 ( Jesus pen 35, 55, White 47, Xhaka 84)
Leeds Utd 1 (Kristensen 76)
1st April 2023, Premier League.
It wasn’t to be a repeat of that fabulous day in 2003 when we ended the Gunners’ title hopes while securing our place in the Prem. Instead, it had all the feeling of yet another routine visit to London such as we have seen all too often in the intervening 20 years. We arrived with oodles of hope if not too much expectation but, having zero luck once again and then surrendering four weak goals, it all felt totally dispiriting.
We all knew it wasn’t going to be a game that would define our season, that’s a tag-line more befitting our next two games at Elland Road, but we wanted to get some sense that we could at least compete, just as we did against Arsenal in Yorkshire back in October. Another plucky performance today would have strengthened the feeling many fans had that we were at least on the right track, even if our train arrived here a bit on the lightweight side without Max Wober, Willy Gnonto and Tyler Adams.
There were raised eyebrows when the team was announced, even though we knew about the absentees. It was, I am sure, thought that Rasmus Kristensen’s inclusion meant we would go with a five across the back, but it soon became evident that instead, our Viking warrior would play a role as the “wrecker” in a midfield three, alongside Marc Roca and Jack Harrison. Going with Summerville, Aaronson and Sinisterra up front also looked like a cautious choice with the next two games being earmarked maybe for the likes of Bamford, Rodrigo and Weston McKennie to make their mark. That’s what it looked like to me anyway!
Leeds were strong for 35 minutes in that tight new 4 – 3 – 3 formation with Rasmus Kristensen certainly looking the part. The idea was clearly to remain tight and play when the home side decided to let us have the ball, that is, on the break. It almost worked too; Kristensen stinging the hands of Ramsdale in the very first minute and Summerville and Harrison also denied with decent enough efforts that kept Ramsdale busy. We were even confident enough to turn our backs on the action without too much fear of missing a decisive Arsenal attack as we remembered Chris and Kev in the time-honoured fashion midway through the half. There had been a tribute to David “Rocky” Rocastle before kick-off too, an Arsenal ‘7’ shirt and a Leeds ‘15’ shirt being carried by the mascots. Rocky passed away almost exactly 22 years ago.
To then concede a needless penalty just ten minutes before the break must have been like a dagger to the heart of the players who had followed the game plan to the letter thus far. For the fans, certainly, for me, it all started to feel very much like a thousand previous visits to the capital; a sprinkling of bad luck mixed with some poor Leeds judgment. Arsenal have very clever players and to get anything against them you need to be just as quick-witted. Sadly we failed on that score. Luke Ayling bought a dummy from Jesus and went to ground (an error significant enough in itself) but to then allow a leg to lift and make the faintest of contact with the attacker’s leg, well, against a player as clever as Jesus that is akin to footballing suicide. Feeling the contact, Jesus threw himself down and Darren England was soon pointing at the spot. It was as soft as soft can be and it was avoidable. A clearance seconds earlier by Robin Koch didn’t cut the mustard and allowed Jesus the opportunity to run back at us. All the good work of those first 35 minutes was undone in the blink of an eye.
Being a goal down at The Emirates at halftime was no terrible situation, remember only Manchester City had won here so far this season, so I’m sure the halftime talk was upbeat. But within a couple of minutes of the restart, some familiar Leeds defensive wobbles became apparent and by ten minutes into the new half, the game was done.
We’d had a little glimpse of how we can self-destruct in the first half when Illan Meslier did a passable impression of the calamity we saw at Molineux, coming out and clearing outside his box but only finding an Arsenal player. Fortunately, this time Luke Ayling, more by luck than judgement, managed to coax the ball from the resulting goal-bound effort past the post. The second Arsenal goal had Luke in the frame again, this time being bamboozled by Martinelli going first one way then the other before firing the ball across the face of goal. Jack Harrison initially had Ben White on his radar but then White reacted the fastest and nipped past Jack to smash the ball home off the underside of the bar. Trossard then did to Robin Koch what Martinelli did to Luke, getting past him to send the ball across goal from the other side, This time Jesus was there to prod home. 3 – 0 and now it really did feel like so many previous visits to the capital.
The irrepressible Rasmus was still marauding around the pitch and he clearly wasn’t either bloodied or unbowed; it was his shot that gave just a glimmer of rekindled hope in the 76th minute as it cannoned off a defender’s shoulder, deflecting just enough to deceive Ramsdale. Maybe Lady Luck had evened one up. But we never had a chance to build on that glimmer as we shot ourselves in the foot again only eight minutes later. A simple ball from Trossard diagonally into the Leeds box found Xhaka who’d got the yard of space he needed away from Luke Ayling to rise and plant a header past Meslier. We really do have to rethink the way it is often Luke left at the back post to defend our air space; he can’t do it.
So, in the end, Leeds were well beaten and few will remember how, for 35 minutes, we went toe to toe with the Champions elect. We’ve had so many gutsy efforts against Arsenal without any reward that I’ve lost count of them. At the end of the day, they always seem to have that extra dash of quality that we can’t cope with. That, and the inevitable London luck that always seems to elude us.
As I started with though, this defeat will not be the defining moment in our quest to survive this season. We went into battle with the Gunners with key players missing and knowing defeat was likely even with a fully fit squad. The familiar defensive frailty we saw again today continues to be a worry but today has also shown that Javi has a few tricks up his sleeve when needed and maybe the new role for Rasmus is a plus to come out of this defeat. We have to believe that we can conjure up a formation and a performance on Tuesday to see off Forest and then another to see off Crystal Palace next weekend, those two games may well define our season.
Arsenal Leeds U
Possession 67% 33%
Shots 13 7
On Target 6 5
Corners 4 3
Fouls 11 13