There’s got to be a word for when your team beats an opponent resoundingly but also makes it feel as if they might, somehow, blow what looks to be an un-blow-able lead. Maybe it should just be called “The Arsenal” given that the Gunners did just that a little more than 10 years ago. Yes, you weren’t the only one having unwelcome 4-4 to Newcastle flashbacks today.
Arsenal are the only club in the Premier League to have ever blown a 4-0 lead, and for a few minutes in the second half against Leeds, it looked as if they might do it again. The visitors had scored two quick goals, and the Gunners looked at 6’s and 7’s at the back. Fortunately, things settled down, and Arsenal claimed the three points.
It’s a bit strange because even though it felt like Arsenal were going to do the unthinkable for a while, the Gunners battered Leeds today. The 4-2 scoreline flatters the visitors, I think.
Bukayo Saka was utterly unplayable today. There was nothing Leeds could do, short of fouling him, to stop him doing whatever he wanted. He earned two penalties for Arsenal (one was taken away by VAR for...reasons), was on the ball in the run-up to one of Arsenal’s open play goals, and helped create the turnover for the another.
Great to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back amongst the goals. His hat trick today ticked a few boxes — it was his 199th, 200th, and 201st top-flight goals, his first Premier League hat trick, and the first PL hat trick for Arsenal since Aaron Ramsey against Everton in February 2018 (incidentally, that was also Aubameyang’s Arsenal debut match for the club).
I’ve already talked about how well Bukayo Saka played, but his midfielder partners, Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe were quite good as well. Who would have thought that having three attacking-minded midfielders who all dribble, pass, and move creatively on the pitch together would be wildly successful?! Ødegaard had a few really nice flashes of skill, and I’d wager he did even more “good stuff” than we noticed.
Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka were strong today as well, particularly in the first half when they were moving the ball quickly. Hector Bellerin put in another good shift, got forward well, had solid distribution, and scored a goal; he was somewhat to blame for Leeds’ second goal but it happens. Gabriel’s performance was mostly positive, too. He’s not back to his early-season level, but he looked better than he did before he had to miss time due to COVID when his play was really starting to dip.
My biggest gripe on the day is with Mikel Arteta for bringing on Willian. Resting Emile Smith Rowe, who can look leggy late in matches, ahead of 4 matches in the next 13 days, was a good idea. But why Willian? Why not Gabriel Martinelli or Nicolas Pepe or even Alexandre Lacazette? Arsenal’s press, structure, and overall play cratered when Willian came on. He’s just done as a footballer at this level. Sidenote: bit of a raised eyebrow at Saka and Aubameyang playing the full 90 minutes with the upcoming schedule, too.
Today was fun. The first half was fantastic, and Arsenal fully deserved their 3-0 halftime lead. The second half was, obviously, not as good. But three points are three points. Arsenal keep themselves in the chase for a Europa League spot and within (distant) touching distance of the top four.
The recent performances (today included) have me feeling like the side is on the verge of breaking through — the attack is rounding into form nicely and will improve when Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey can get and stay healthy (the attacking statistic splits with and without Tierney are particularly stark). There are still a few more defensive lapses than you’d like to see, but the defense is much more consistently good enough to not lose matches than it has been in recent years. If that makes sense.
We won’t have long to wait to see if Arsenal can keep building on the good performances. The Gunners play Benfica on Thursday, Manchester City on Sunday, Benfica on Thursday, Leicester City on Sunday. Hopefully they’re up for the challenge!