This season, Arsenal have been dominant and in control of most matches. They were not today. Leeds United thoroughly outplayed Arsenal in the second half, and it took desperation defending, fantastic goalkeeping, and a bit of luck for the Gunners to escape with the 1-0 win. But three points are three points. They count the same in the standings regardless of how you earn them.
It was always going to be a weird match. The afternoon started with a nearly 39 minute delay just after kickoff because a power issue caused the referees equipment, VAR, and goal line technology to go dead.
The first half was great. High energy from both sides and up-and-down action at both ends. Arsenal scored the only goal of the match in the 35th minute when Rodrigo’s ill-advised, unnecessary, and wild switch of play in his own half turned the ball over to Arsenal. Martin Ødegaard slipped in Bukayo Saka, who somehow found space to blast it over Illan Meslier at the near post. It was a fantastic shot from the Arsenal winner, and at the same time, Meslier maybe could have done better — he went to ground quite early.
The second half was dreadful (or nearly fantastic if you’re a Leeds United supporter). The home side bossed the game and could easily have had an equalizer but for Aaron Ramsdale’s magnificent play. The Arsenal goalkeeper stopped multiple breakaways and made big saves to keep the clean sheet. The poor second half can be traced to Leeds’ high-energy, high-pressing style combined with 5 matches in 15 days for Arsenal. The Gunners were tired and could not keep the ball, and Leeds were attacking in waves.
The match had several important VAR moments. Leeds were awarded a penalty early in the second half for a William Saliba handball. I don’t think Saliba knew anything about it, but the ball hit his arm when it was away from his body. Patrick Bamford put the penalty wide.
There was a bit of a question (not reviewed by VAR) of offside earlier in the Leeds attacking move before that penalty. My guess is that it was seen as a different phase of play. But that’s an issue created by the existence of VAR and the instructions to referees. I’m assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the linesman saw the initial offside. He likely didn’t raise his flag because he wasn’t sure it was offside, which is what he’s supposed to do. But the play was offside. It should have been over. Instead, Leeds were able to keep the ball and won a penalty less than a minute later. Fortunately, Bamford missed, but they never should have had a penalty in the first place.
Leeds thought they had a second penalty late into stoppage time after Gabriel Magalhaes appeared to kick out at Bamford after the Leeds striker shoved him over from behind in the Arsenal box. The referee consulted with the assistant, awarded a penalty, and showed Gabriel a red card. Both the penalty and the red were rescinded by VAR correctly spotting Bamford’s clear foul on Gabriel that sparked the incident.
Taking away the penalty was unquestionably the correct decision. Bamford’s foul occurred first. There’s room for debate on whether the red card should have stood. I think rescinding it was correct. There wasn’t much in the contact by Gabriel on Bamford, and it looked to be caused more by Gabriel tumbling to the ground from the push than for kicking out at Bamford. But I can absolutely see how you might view Gabriel’s contact differently. It didn’t look great on first look.
It was a scrappy, combative match, which is exactly how Leeds want their games to go. They took advantage of Arsenal’s tired legs, caused real problems in the second half with their pressure, and will feel like they did more than enough to earn a result. But Arsenal won the points. To finish high up the table, you need to win some matches where you weren’t the better team on the day. So from that perspective, it was a weirdly reassuring outcome for Arsenal. Regardless of your conclusion about the match, it’s another week atop the table for the Gunners. We move.