I was expecting an Arsenal win over Leeds today. The Gunners took care of business, staking themselves to a commanding 3-0 at halftime and coasting home in the second 45, although perhaps a bit too heavy on the coast. Gabriel Martinelli netted his first Premier League brace, Bukayo Saka chipped in, and Emile Smith Rowe scored as a substitute for the third straight time, the first Arsenal player to manage the feat since Kanu in 2000.
I’d also point out that all three Arsenal scorers are under 21 years old. The Gunners have the most goals by U21’s of any team in the Premier League (14) this season, 5 more than Southampton in second. Emile Smith Rowe has 6 goals in his last 8 PL matches and is tied for fourth in the scoring table. Gabriel Martinelli has 3 goals and an assist in his last 3 matches. And Martin Ødegaard is in a fantastic run of form. The Arsenal kids are very much alright.
You’ve got to feel for Leeds. They’re in an awful run of form in large part due to their nigh unbelievable injury list. They came into today’s match without enough senior players to fill the starting XI. They had 9 fit outfield players to go along with their two keepers, and one of players, Robin Koch had been out since the season opener through injury and illness. They were just battered 7-0 by Manchester City in the midweek, and Arsenal just crunched them 4-1. It’s tough times up north.
Perhaps that was why, especially in the first half, there were gaping chasms between and along the Leeds lines for Arsenal to run into vertically and pick through balls. I honestly cannot remember seeing that much space in a defensive setup. It was bad. The second goal was a perfect example. Granit Xhaka hit what was at the same time a great through ball and one I’m pretty sure I could have played because of how much space there was to a wide open Gabriel Martinelli running between defenders who calmly and impressively dinked it over an oncoming Ilhan Meslier.
Granit Xhaka giveth, Granit Xhaka taketh away. In the second half, the Arsenal midfielder was lucky not to get a yellow card for what the announcer rightfully called an orange card tackle on Raphinha. Later, to put things right in the universe, he picked up a yellow for timewasting on a restart when Arsenal were up 3 goals. It’s truly something how one player can simultaneously be so clearly important to the team functioning well while also being so incredibly daft that it defies logic.
There were two blemishes for Arsenal on the day. The first was Ben White’s perplexing, out-of-control slide to concede a penalty (that Raphinha impressively put away into the top corner). The second and more concerning was Takehiro Tomiyasu leaving with a knock. Hopefully the right back won’t miss any time, because he has been incredibly solid and a key defensive contributor since joining the club at the transfer deadline. Also, Cedric was quite poor in relief and was part of the reason why Leeds got into a position to win the penalty in the first place. If Tomiyasu misses time, it should be Calum Chambers or even Nuno Tavares ahead of Cedric at RB.
Perhaps a third blemish was Arsenal generally letting up for the first 30 some odd minutes of the second half. It’s tough to fault them for taking their foot off the gas a bit with the game seemingly firmly in hand, but you’d like to see them go on and put things completely out of reach. Fortunately, the penalty seemed to wake them up a bit, and they closed out the game without much issue. It’s a bit of a bummer not to get another clean sheet for Aaron Ramsdale and the defense.
The match was marred by an allegation that a Leeds supporter had racially abused some of the Arsenal substitutes as they were warming up that caused a brief pause in the match while Andre Marriner, the 4th official, the two managers, and the Leeds staff discussed the problem. Apparently Rob Holding reported the issue, which is precisely what a teammate (and human being) should do. When you see or hear racism, you do something about it. Incidents like this are why the players continue to kneel before the matches. The fight against racism is an ongoing one.
Arsenal are next in action at the Emirates against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday then away to Norwich City on Boxing Day. But with the COVID situation in British football and the U.K. as a whole, it’s touch and go. Aston Villa vs. Burnley was postponed just hours before kickoff earlier today. There have been six matches postponed in total this weekend. Before the match, Arsenal announced that Sambi Lokonga had tested positive for COVID, Mikel Arteta confirmed after the match that Pablo Mari was positive, and we already knew that a few of the staff were positive as well.
There is an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss next steps, and the season could be paused to give players and staff time to isolate / quarantine to stop the spread. I would not be surprised to see matches go behind closed doors for a period to help control the virus in the general population, especially in the face of what appears to be a much more contagious Omicron variant. Hopefully everyone has their priorities straight and makes the correct decisions.
Arsenal are playing well. They’ve got two winnable matches coming up to help consolidate their hold on fourth in the table before a New Years’ Day clash with Manchester City. As the Premier League stumbles towards the halfway poll, I like how the Gunners are positioned.