In it until they weren’t
If you had been told on the Saturday morning train journey down to London that Leeds United would be beaten 4-1 by one of the best teams in Europe, you probably would not have batted much of an eyelid. This is the outcome and scoreline most onlookers must have expected.
The Whites had won four of their previous 24 games in the division and Arsenal had won 11 of their 14 home league games this term. The 19 goals scored in their prior six matches also helped in driving home the pre-match narrative we were all expecting.
And yet the scoreline does not tell the entire story. United deserved to lose the game, no doubt, but for a good portion of the afternoon, they competed with the league leaders, restricted them and frustrated them.
As has felt like the storyline on so many occasions in this challenging season, Leeds conspired to concede just as they found a foothold in the game. Their best spell of the match immediately preceded Gabriel Jesus’s superb twist of class inside the penalty box which sent not only Rasmus Kristensen, but Luke Ayling to the turf.
It was an ideal example of the quality Arsenal sought to bring to tight games like this when they brought the Brazilian in from perennial title-winners Manchester City. There were sights at goal for Crysencio Summerville and a palm-stinger from Jack Harrison.
Bury either and it changes the complexion of the afternoon, but just as they looked at a goal of their own, they gifted Arsenal the opener. Leeds rallied and gathered themselves before the break and returned to the dressing room with enough about them to believe they could still rattle London cages.
Ben White didn’t even hesitate in celebrating a knockout goal against the club which made him. Jack Harrison’s head in his hands summed up the moment for all of a United persuasion.
It was the straw which broke the camel’s back and lifted the pressure off the hosts. The game quickly got away from Leeds before Arsenal eased their foot off the pedal in the final quarter.
It was a 4-1 loss, but the compact shape Javi Gracia had the team in was working. There were jarring decisions like Rasmus Kristensen and Harrison in a midfield three as well as the absence of a natural striker with a laboured Luis Sinisterra returned to the fold.
And yet it had the desired effect. This was not the kind of hiding which tore down the promise Gracia had built in his opening four games, it was an expected defeat which bore the hallmarks of a diligent unit.
Last season’s trip to the Emirates may have conceded two fewer goals, but you came away from yesterday actually feeling more positive. 2022’s visit was a chaotic mess of indiscipline and poor decision-making, 2023 was the result of small margins title-winners create.
Ayling’s third on the bounce
Luke Ayling’s extraordinary week against Manchester United feels like a long time ago, all of a sudden. That four-day double-header seemed to unlock the very best of the vice-captain.
In the absence of a permanent head coach and the club skipper, Ayling was the veteran stepping forward to lead from the front against United’s most-hated rival. The 31-year-old was almost flawless in dealing with one of the continent’s form forwards, Marcus Rashford, that week.
The column inches spoke of a breakthrough and a reminder of who the top dog was in the club’s crowded right-back ranks. However, as swiftly as Ayling was built up, these past three performances cannot pass without comment.
The stand-in captain has been brutally exposed at points in all three of the games with Brighton & Hove Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and yesterday at Arsenal. Of course, the former and the latter are among the best teams in the league with two of the best left-wingers in Kaoru Mitoma and Gabriel Martinelli among their number.
The league is the league, though. This is the level full-backs need to be at in order to survive in the top flight. With Rasmus Kristensen fresh from two goals in two games and a Denmark call-up, there could be a temptation to try something diffierent, at least in the short term, for Gracia.
Summerville shines in Gnonto’s absence
Wilfried Gnonto and Max Wober’s stock only rose on an afternoon their side took a pasting in their absence. In the case of the former, there was at least someone else picking up the ball-carrying mantle.
Crysencio Summerville, fresh from an eye-catching cameo at Molineux and a scintillating goal with Netherlands under-21s, picked up where he left off. On an afternoon which saw few blows landed on Arsenal’s chin, Summerville was the chief agitator.
White, as unflappable a defender as Leeds have seen in the last 20 years, was even having a hard time coping with the diminutive wide man. The 21-year-old had the quality to pick up the ball in promising positions and cause havoc.
Summerville quietened after the break, but in the first period he tied defenders in knots and had the passing and vision to build moves. His one-two with Marc Roca allowed him a shot of his own while his perfectly weighted side-pass into Harrison’s path allowed him to sting Aaron Ramsdale’s palms.
Summerville’s a must to start against Nottingham Forest on Tuesday.
A monumental week ahead
Before Gracia’s post-match press conference had even concluded at Emirates Stadium last night, attention was turning to Tuesday. This was a routine, expected defeat to the league leaders and all that mattered was the picture looking ahead, not backwards.
The head coach had made a point of stressing, as he had to, everyone’s focus was on Saturday and Arsenal. Looking beyond that, to the crunching double-header at Elland Road, could only spell disaster in the capital.
And yet some of Gracia’s decisions in London could only be explained as primers for the Forest and Crystal Palace clashes ahead. Liam Cooper, Weston McKennie, Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo all started on the bench at Arsenal, but could all end up playing key roles in midweek.
Gracia went to the extremes of playing Kristensen and Harrison in midfield with Brenden Aaronson as a false nine in an effort to save others’ legs. You can understand why.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of these matches. As quickly as the table brightened for the Whites at Molineux a fortnight ago, results would partly go against them yesterday, pushing them down to 16th, above the drop zone by a point.
The anxiety around these next two games is not only in the need for Leeds to build their own tally, but in the direct bolstering losses or draws would give their bottom-nine rivals. Once Roy Hodgson’s side head home on Sunday afternoon, Leicester City in LS11 and trips to Bournemouth and West Ham United will be the final three chances to take points from their relegation rivals.
Hidings like yesterday are tolerable and understandable, but only if Gracia’s side can deliver in pressure cookers like Tuesday and Sunday, when it really does matter.