Published on November 23, 2020Embed from Getty Images
6,064 days had passed since Leeds United and Arsenal, two of the most decorated teams in English football, last met in the league. Plenty of water has passed under Elland Road since that 5-0 loss at Highbury in 2004, but Sunday’s match offered far less drama than the last 16 turbulent years of Leeds’ history.
The game swung in Marcelo Bielsa’s side’s favour in the 51st minute after a moment of rash indiscipline from Nicolas Pepe. In a seemingly unprovoked off-the-ball coming together with Ezgjan Alioski, Pepe aggressively moved his head towards the temple of the North Macedonia international, who dropped to the floor.
Referee Anthony Taylor was advised consult the VAR, but it took under 10 seconds for him to conclude Pepe’s fate. As Taylor produced the red card, the winger’s reaction was one of acquiescence, as he realised the stupidity of his actions. The 25-year-old spent the international break with the Ivory Coast, but not even the jet lag from a 6,000-mile round trip to west Africa could excuse a moment of such selfish idiocy.
After handing Pepe just his second league start of the season, Mikel Arteta will not only be frustrated with his player’s sending off, but also his performance up until his dismissal. Despite being entrusted in his favoured right-wing position, Pepe’s first half display yielded little besides a cross which clipped the bar. Arteta’s post-match response to the sending off was simply: “Unacceptable. That is it.”
Arsenal’s back to the wall performance at Elland Road can be partially excused by Pepe’s moment of madness early in the second half, but Arteta will know that his side’s display in the opening 45 minutes was far below the standard expected of a team whose front four cost just shy of £130million.
The narrative for the remainder of the second half was set as soon as Pepe trudged down the tunnel. Arsenal’s objective was clearly to try and hang on for a point as they sat deep and invited Leeds to break them down.
For the 10 minutes immediately after Pepe’s sending off, Leeds seemed to panic when in possession and looked to force the ball into the box rather than maintain the slick build-up play which cut through Arsenal’s static midfield in the first half.
Centre-back Robin Koch was a persistent offender of such route one tactics which were a stark contrast to Bielsa’s usual high-energy style. In a bid to unlock a stubborn Arsenal backline, the frustrated German played several direct lofted crosses into the box, which were either overhit or gobbled up by Rob Holding and Gabriel.
As the game entered its final 30 minutes, it became apparent that Leeds would need to conjure up a moment of brilliance to beat an in-form Bernd Leno. Stuart Dallas’ left-footed strike looked destined for the top corner, but Leno sprung to his right and tipped the Northern Ireland international’s effort over.
In a first half dominated by the hosts, Leno had to be at his best to compensate for his full-backs allowing far too many Leeds crosses to enter the box. Leeds’ Jack Harrison and Luke Ayling were proving too much for Arsenal down the flanks, each providing pinpoint crosses for Patrick Bamford whose two first half efforts were well saved by Leno.
With seven goals in his last eight league appearances, Bamford’s confidence was telling as he regularly dropped deep to bring others into play. Having just one Premier League goal to his name prior to the 2020/21 campaign, the 27-year-old’s red-hot form in the early stages of this season has come as a surprise to many.
As someone who can boast to have turned down a scholarship at Harvard University, Bamford will be well aware that £27million summer signing Rodrigo – who only has one league goal this season – did not make the move from Valencia in return for cameo appearances.
The Spaniard showed glimpses of quality after his introduction in the 70th minute and was responsible for one of the three Leeds efforts to have hit the woodwork in the final 20 minutes. His curling effort from the edge of the area flew past a helpless Leno and onto the crossbar.
Leeds were doing all they could to prevent only a third goalless draw in 101 matches under Bielsa but faced a resilient Gunners defence which showed no signed of cracking despite being a man light. Arsenal hearts were in mouths when Bamford found himself unmarked in the area following a cross from substitute Ian Poveda-Ocampo, but his header struck the post.
It would be unfair to Arsenal, searching for their first goal from open play in nearly 500 minutes, to suggest that the home side had it all their own way. In fact, Arteta’s men nearly nicked an unlikely winner in the 84th minute when Hector Bellerin stormed up the pitch to play in Bukayo Saka clean through against Illan Meslier. Saka rounded the goalkeeper, but his tame shot was well-saved.
Had Saka’s last-gasp effort found the back of the net, Leeds would have been well within their rights to feel extremely hard done by. Leeds’ dominance was evident from the end-of-game stats and must have provided frustrating viewing for Bielsa. The hosts kept 67% of possession and had a total of 25 goal attempts, compared to a derisory nine mustered by their opponents.
The concern for Bielsa will be that from those 25 attempts, only four were on target. Leeds’ last chance from wave after wave of attacks fell to Raphinha on his full debut. The Brazilian, only six yards out, thundered his effort against the post to conclude an evening of wasted chances at Elland Road.
The Whites’ next opponents, Everton, have the fourth worst defensive record in the league which suggests that Bielsa’s side will create chances at Goodison Park. However, a far more clinical edge is required if they are to earn their first win since October.
For Arteta, the collective resolve shown by his side to stand strong against 40 minutes of constant Leeds pressure will have provided crumbs of encouragement. But in the Spaniard’s heart of hearts, he will know that the Gunners were fortunate to leave Elland Road with a point.