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Arsenal at Leeds preview: Road Warriors

Arsenal hit the road in search of an elusive away victory to maintain their top four spot.

Arsenal v West Ham United - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Few things have defined Arsenal’s season quite like the Jekyll and Hyde duality of their form. At home, Arsenal are a powerhouse - their home record is second only to league leading Manchester City, with 7 home victories from 9 matches. Wednesday’s 2-0 victory against West Ham was Arsenal’s most complete match of the season, and an absolute delight to witness. The Gunners played the Hammers off the pitch from the opening whistle until the last, putting one of the league’s most physical side to the sword in front of an enthusiastic home crowd, overtaking the Hammers for 4th place.

Now, Arsenal hit the road only three days later to attempt to do something that has eluded them this entire season - win convincingly away from home.

Arsenal’s away form is bad - 2 wins, 1 draw, and 5 losses from 8 matches - but it certainly looks worse on paper than in reality. Losses to City and Liverpool were all but inevitable, and the opening loss to Brentford was mired in COVID absences (which, of course, didn’t necessitate a postponement by the league at the time). But avoidable losses to Manchester United and Everton featured an uninspired Arsenal side that lacked all of the things on display on Wednesday - fight, hunger, conviction, etc. Even the Gunners’ two road wins, at Leicester and Burnley, were inconsistent at best.

Saturday’s trip to Leeds, 16th in the Premiere League, is perhaps as good a chance as any for Arsenal to put together a complete match away from the Emirates. While seemingly half of the league are postponing their matches due to COVID outbreaks, Leeds’ attrition is of a more conventional variety - injuries and match bans have torn through the squad almost as ruthlessly as Manchester City did. As of Thursday, Leeds had only 11 available first team players ahead of this weekend’s tie, a worrying situation for a club perilously close to the relegation zone.

Arsenal, on the inverse, are humming, healthy, and looking sharp. Outside of Sead Kolasinac and Bernd Leno, no first team player is injured, a rarity during the holiday fixture list. Although the Aubameyang Captaincy debacle dominated headlines in the early week, the victory over West Ham shifted the narrative rather quickly, as Arsenal showed no signs of letting that issue affect their play, nor did the absence of Aubameyang, who was not selected on Wednesday, become a factor.

The real story was the continued rise of the young attackers. Gabriel Martinelli, ever electric, gave fans Thierry Henry flashbacks with his blazing sprint into the box capped off with a silky finish to the back post. Bukayo Saka continued to do Saka things as he repeatedly abused Arthur Masuaku on the flank an gave defenders fits with his slippery dribbling. And Emile Smith Rowe, who had been sidelined with a groin injury for a few matches, came on as a late sub to ice the match with a clinical finish from the edge of the box. After a frustratingly barren stretch to start the season, the Gunners are finally scoring goals, and it’s largely coming from the kids.

However, the snakebit Arsenal fan in me can’t help but look at the circumstances - a healthy, solid Arsenal team visiting a battered Leeds team fresh off a ruthless caning by Manchester City - and feel the trap game goblins rearing their ugly heads. Arsenal have been in situations like this countless times before and thrown them away with alarming regularity. Whether it be misfiring strikers or suddenly-inept defenders, the Gunners have found new and exciting ways to lose or draw matches that feel like all-but-guaranteed wins.

It’s all too simple, really. Leeds are wounded, and Arsenal’s form is returning to red-hot. The Gunners are back in the top four and finally got their goal differential into the black, and it would be pretty nice if they kept it there. If the back line and attack can both retain their form from the past two matches, it is hard to imagine Arsenal leaving without all three points. Can they put it together on the road for once? We’ll find out on Saturday.

WHAT: Arsenal vs Leeds United
WHERE: Elland Road
WHEN: 12:30pm EST/9:30am PST/5:30pm GMT
HOW TO WATCH: Live on NBC and streaming on Peacock Premium.

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