It was a game of two halves at the Emirates stadium as Pierre Emerick Aubameyang scored his first Premier League hat-trick in a 4-2 Arsenal win which sent Leeds United crashing back to the bottom half of the Premier League.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal were trying to arrest a run of two successive defeats against which had seen them fall below Leeds United in the Premier League table whilst Leeds were trying to build on their easy victory against Crystal Palace on Monday and solidify themselves in tenth place.
Neither team would come into this match-up at full strength either. Arsenal were without Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey, though they were able to welcome back Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the starting eleven, whilst David Luiz and Bernd Leno were also available after serving their suspensions from the loss to Wolves two weeks ago.
Leeds United faced yet another reshuffling of the backline as Kalvin Phillips was ruled out for the game. Pascal Struijk would be the man to move into midfield, with Luke Ayling, a former Arsenal youth, moving into the centre of defence and Jamie Shackleton starting at right-back. The pairing of Pascal Struijk and Liam Cooper at the back had bourne fruit for the Whites in recent times and Marcelo Bielsa would have hoped that losing it would not have too much negative impact on Leeds’ steadily improving defence.
Immediately though, there were warning signs that Arsenal could pose a threat to the travelling side. Within a minute, Emile Smith-Rowe had put a shot well over the bar after Aubameyang and Cedric had combined down the left.
Leeds are a team known for scoring early in games but really struggled to build up momentum in midfield against the resilience of Arsenal. Bielsa’s boys did manage to grind out a few chance though. Mateusz Klich, playing despite a minor hip injury, won the ball in midfield and tried to send Bamford into the area, only for Gabriel to recover nicely. Jack Harrison then put in a peachy cross, it found Bamford at the near post and his header was on target, but was well saved by Leno.
It seemed as though, after a tough start, Leeds were pushing to get back into their usual flow. That was undone only a minute after Bamford’s header had been saved. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has had a mixed season in front of goal, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the quality of his first conversion of the day. The Gabonese striker collected the ball on the left of the box, cast a spell on Luke Ayling with some neat step-overs and smashed the ball into the near-corner of the net. It was a moment of real individual quality and Arsenal deservedly took the lead.
An easy to define characteristic of this Leeds team is it’s never-say-die attitude to footballing matters and the game was far from over at 1-0. Some nice play between Ezjan Alioski, Jack Harrison and Raphinha gave Mateusz Klich an opportunity to unleash a trademark curler from the edge of the box but the Pole sent his effort well over.
Jamie Shackleton then set Raphinha free down the right. The Brazilian cut in and played the ball across the box to Jack Harrison. The on-loan City winger has been in fine goalscoring form and would have been disappointed by his inability to put the ball to either side of Leno, instead finding the German ‘keeper perfectly.
Every spell of momentum must end though and Arsenal soon had the better of it once more. First, Luke Ayling was forced into a great block to prevent Aubameyang getting his second after David Luiz, who had run the length of the pitch, squared the ball to the fromer Dortmund man around eight yards from goal. Arsenal were then given a penalty, with Liam Cooper adjudged to have brought down Bukayo Saka in the area. VAR analysed the incident though and saw that Saka had tripped over the turf before any contact was made by the Leeds United captain.
No penalty then and a reprieve for Leeds
Well, for five minutes at least.
Illan Meslier has been a shining light for Leeds United this season, winning the team far more points than he has cost them but he dillied and dallied on the ball inside his own area. Bukayo Saka nipped in and strike the ball away from the French shot-stopper and Meslier fouled him in his attempt to rectify his mistake. A penalty was given once again, this time it stood. Aubameyang was the man who stepped up to take it, and he tucked it away in style.
Arsenal were two up on 40 minutes and seemed to be content to just hold the ball. Until, that is, Saka decided to step up. The young winger has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season and was brilliant in this match. On the stroke of half-time, Saka moved the ball into the Leeds area, kept it away from ever opposition player, let Aubameyang join in. His cross found Bellerin, who found Ceballos and Bellerin was put back in behind the defence to smash the ball into the net from close range.
At half-time, Arsenal were deservedly ahead by three goals. Leeds United had been awful both offensively and defensively. It seemed as though Marcelo Bielsa recognised this though and brought on Tyler Roberts and Helder Costa in place of Mateusz Klich and Jack Harrison, hoping that this would revitalise the side.
Almost instantly, one of these substitutes had created a goal. Unfortunately, it was for Arsenal. Helder Costa held the ball on the edge of his own box for too long and had his pocket picked by Emile Smith-Rowe. The exciting youngster whipped the ball to the head of Aubameyang and the striker had his hat-trick. It was 4-0 and surely game over.
One should never write-off Leeds United though and, after a tough start to the second period, Marcelo Bielsa’s men attacked with a vengeance. Raphinha, now playing on the left, forced a number of good saves from Bernd Leno. One of these led to a corner, the Brazilian whipped the set-piece in himself and Pascal Struijk was there to turn in for his first senior goal. The young centre-back, playing in midfield today, had a huge number of chances earlier in the week against Palace but took his header well today. 4-1 now, game on?
Bielsa made another substitute, Niall Huggins replaced the ineffectual Ezjan Alioski and so began the roundabout of Stuart Dallas, Jamie Shackleton and Huggins who flipped between central midfield and full-back impressively. Arsenal didn’t know what to do and, coupled with the increasing tough-to-handle Tyler Roberts, it seemed as though a comeback might be on the cards.
This hope was magnified when Tyler Roberts set up Helder Costa to take the score to 4-2. Costa improved as the half went on and made up for his earlier mistake with a goal. Leeds kept pushing and found themselves on the other side of a penalty shout when Patrick Bamford was played into the area by Jamie Shackleton. The striker was sandwiched to the ground by two Arsenal player, with neither getting contact on the ball until Bamford had hit the ground but no penalty was given.
Bamford then nearly got on the end of a Luke Ayling cross from the byline, David Luiz was there though and did well to clear it. The game ticked into the 90th minute and there was time for one last chance. Jamie Shackleton made a darting run into the area and Tyler Roberts sent a perfectly weighted ball into the area. Shackleton went after it with his weaker foot, but it was always a tough volley to take on, particularly for a player with only two senior goals.
The game ended at 4-2 and Leeds perhaps had a right to feel upset based on the quality of their second-half chances, in the end though, it was not enough to make up for a genuinely awful first-half performance. Illan Meslier will understandably get some criticism for that first 45, but we must be careful to understand that he is a highly promising kid and will make mistakes. He has still saved us more points than he has cost and deserves the benefit of forgiveness for today. He will learn and come back stronger. Onto Wolves next, and a win would put Leeds in a good position to move back to the top half with our game-in-hand against Southampton following quickly afterwards.