Arsenal 2-1 Leeds: Luke Ayling’s red card appeared to end the Whites’ hopes before Diego Llorente’s second-half strike gave the Gunners a scare
There are certain afternoons when fate seems destined to conspire in one direction. On this occasion, it was instigated by the relentless running of Eddie Nketiah within just five minutes and made permanent by a Leeds capitulation of such astounding conviction in the first half, it was as though they were intent on writing their own relegation obituary.
After Tottenham dropped points against Liverpool yesterday, there ought to have been a degree of pressure on Mikel Arteta’s side, one that in the past they’ve struggled at times to shoulder. But there was a buoyancy to the Emirates on an idyllic spring afternoon, a sense of opportunity and optimism aided by Arteta’s signing of a new three-year contract, and the first hour of this 2-1 victory often felt like an exhibition of his vision.
It was only the hero at its centre who Arteta had perhaps not envisaged. Nketiah still seems set to end his long association with Arsenal this summer, but his two goals – seizing on Ilan Meslier’s disastrous hesitation and tapping in from barely a yard before a smart first-time finish with his weak foot – had crumbled the pale Leeds resistance within the opening 10 minutes.
From thereon, this should have merely been an exercise in boosting goal difference, especially after Luke Ayling’s senseless act of self-destruction before half an hour had even passed when the Leeds captain was sent off for a needless two-footed lunge by the corner flag. But being Arsenal, a four-point lead over Tottenham in the top-four race needed to be wrestled into reality after it had been gifted to them.
They dominated the ball, spurned umpteen chances to extend their lead, and a sense of dread seemed to drip down from the crowd onto the pitch after Diego Llorente turned in a corner with 66 minutes gone. Old habits die hard but it is becoming a theme of Arteta’s side that they can – just about – stave off the disasters of their own making, and they now take what, on this evidence, may well be a vital margin for error into Thursday’s crucial north London derby.
Jesse Marsch might fairly point to the catalogue of injuries that deprived him of four key players, but the manner in which Martin Odegaard was given the freedom to command the game and the space afforded to Martinelli and Bukayo Saka on the wings was either tactical suicide or suggestive of a total disregard of the coach’s instructions. Their ragged start was only made more concerning by the grave stakes at hand, with a recently resurgent Everton kicking off simultaneously against Leicester, and their 2-1 victory now leaves Leeds in the bottom three, below Burnley courtesy of an inferior goal difference.
What Marsch and Leeds couldn’t account for, though, was the sort of calamitous individual error that allowed Arsenal to take the lead inside five minutes and alleviated any tension inside the stadium. Ayling’s backpass wasn’t the best but would’ve presented no danger had Meslier opted to clear the ball at the first opportunity. Instead, the goalkeeper dithered, took a loose touch and Nketiah was able to tackle the ball into the net. It was a credit to the striker’s determined desire to press, which has vindicated Arteta’s decision to keep Alexandre Lacazette on the bench in recent weeks, although the 22-year-old’s celebration was muted against the club where he previously spent six months on loan.
Nketiah was at the forefront again just five minutes later after Martinelli was able to twist his way past three Leeds players on the left wing. He waited patiently on the penalty spot, with a hapless defence scattered and all but out of sight as the striker swept the Brazilian’s cut-back into the far corner with his weaker left foot. It was all too easy, and Ayling’s mindless challenge with Martinelli trapped in the corner – upgraded to a red card after a VAR check – seemed sure to be the nail in the coffin. This was the former Arsenal academy graduate’s 500th senior appearance and yet that fact only made his naivety more unforgivable. Raphinha did his best to follow suit and after being booked for dissent he continued to protest the referee’s decision until he was forcibly held back by his teammates.
The word seamless doesn’t seem to exist in Arsenal’s dictionary, though, and they were punished for failing to extend their lead either side of half time, with Martinelli always threatening but lacking an incisive finish. With a quarter of the game remaining, Leeds won their first corner; Junior Firpo flicked onto Llorente at the far post and his shot snuck betwween Aaron Ramsdale and his near post.
The jitters became palpable as a semblance of belief was restored to Leeds, and they threatened on the break thereafter, even if they lacked the final ball to frighten an Arsenal defence improved by Takehiro Tomiyasu’s switch to left-back, with the chaotic Nuno Tavares kept glued to the safety of the bench. Nerves still reigned right up until the final whistle, with Arsenal increasingly deprived of daring and confidence, almost beckoning the upset until Ramsdale’s stoppage-time save from a tame Rodrigo header ensured they would hold onto the three points. It takes them a step closer to a Champions League return that is now theirs to lose, even if the nervous finale showed that is still very much within the realms of possibility.