A blistering 47 minutes of entertaining football from an attack-minded Arsenal team blew Leeds United away at the Emirates yesterday and secured our first win in four league games.
An Aubameyang hat trick – welcome back Captain! – a full debut for Odegaard and a performance of great bravery and maturity from Saka all contributed to a return of the feel good factor.
After 47 minutes, when we were 4-0 up, we allowed the visitors to get back in the game. Whether we got over-confident or Leeds just finally got their act together is hard to say, but when they pulled it back to 4-2 many a bottom lip was nervously quivering among the Arsenal faithful.
Most of us still remember the awful day when we blew a 4-0 lead away at Newcastle United (mostly thanks to an utterly inept display of refereeing by ‘Fat’ Phil Dowd). But despite one or two close shaves we saw this one home safe, so this is a day for focusing on the positives, of which there were many.
First and foremost was the return to form (and exuberance) of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang: club captain, goal scorer extraordinaire and, of late, a shadow of his former self. Today the sun shone (metaphorically), the shadow disappeared and we got the real thing. Whatever private travails have been troubling him seemed banished – he just looked happier.
Did the goals bring back the happiness or did the happiness bring back the goals? I’ll leave that one for the philosophers among you. What certainly played a part was Mikel Arteta’s decision to start him as the central striker.
I have generally been against using Auba in that role because, frankly, it has seldom worked in the past, leaving the player isolated and unable to influence the game. Yesterday it did work. Why? The key is in the players supporting him in that role. Previously he would be relying on the likes of Elneny, Xhaka, Willock and Willian to create openings for him, but in the very attacking Arsenal line-up that Arteta put out yesterday he was supported by some really positive players: Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard, Ceballos.
With that superabundance of creativity, the captain was not left exposed because (a) the quick passing and movement between those players managed to repeatedly break the lines of the Leeds defenders and (b) those defenders could not double up on Auba while other men in red and white were dancing through their ranks like acrobats.
Auba’s first goal came from a familiar position: cutting into the box from the left flank and scoring with his right foot. His step-overs confused the Leeds defender and he surprised the goalkeeper by shooting low in the left hand corner (the ‘keeper’s right).
Soon after that the outstanding Saka jinked into the box only for a Leeds defender to run across him without making any contact with the ball and barge him to the ground: clear penalty (as the referee also thought). Cue the VAR review. The ref was called to ‘take a look at the monitor’ and, lo and behold, he changed his mind. Utterly disgraceful, because the ref is supposed to be called to the monitor only when there is a clear and obvious error, which was most definitely not the case here.
But Saka would not be denied and, minutes later, he chased down the young opposition ‘keeper, who ended up fouling our striker in the box. This one was so blatant that even the VAR officials were too embarrassed to try to overturn it.
Auba hammered a perfect penalty into the side netting – two nil. The third came from a clever ball across the penalty area from Aubameyang, leading to some lovely neat pass-and-move involving Smith Rowe, Bellerin, Ceballos and back to Bellerin again to drive the ball home. As the half time whistle blew I thought we’d seen the best half of football by Arsenal this season. We have had some other good spells, but they were marred by not taking our chances – this time we took them.
Within two minutes of the restart we were four up. Smith Rowe picked out Aubameyang at the back post for an unchallenged header. The TV pundits said it was a misguided shot from Emile. I watched his body language carefully and, to me, it clearly looks like he saw his captain and decided to pick him out. He certainly has the ability to do just that and is also, I feel, a player who more naturally sees himself as a provider than a goalscorer, making the intended pass the more likely probability.
Leeds finally woke up and pulled one back with a powerful header from Struijk (who managed to lose Luiz). That was on 58 minutes. Ten minutes later they got a second through Costa. By this stage Willian had been brought on for Smith Rowe. The hapless Brazilian failed to press along with his team mates, allowing Leeds to break forward quickly and grab a goal.
Cue some nervous moments with a couple of Leeds efforts going close and Luiz making one terrific block in the penalty area. If Leeds had got a third I dread to think what might have happened. But we held firm and banked the points.
A good day.
Leno – 7
No real chance with the goals, made a couple of good stops when called on.
Bellerin – 7
Took his goal well and linked up well with the forwards at times, but (somewhat typically) was left exposed defensively a few times.
Luiz – 7
Probably should have done better on Leeds’ first goal and had low passing accuracy (mainly through having to hoof it long when Leeds were pressing). But his defending was pretty solid.
Gabriel – 7.5
A decent performance. He seems to have shaken off the post-injury rust.
Cedric – 7
Tested the Leeds ‘keeper with a wicked shot and did pretty well on both the defensive and offensive ends, without being spectacular.
Xhaka – 7.5
Who would have thought Granit would turn into such a steady and reliable player? The metronome in our midfield.
Ceballos – 7.5
A positive selection from Arteta. Dani had a good game and linked well with the talented youngsters ahead of him (and with Auba of course).
Smith Rowe – 7.5
Speed of thought, speed of feet, speed of passing. I love watching this kid. He was not always in the thick of the action but whatever “it” is, he has it. Also did some excellent tracking back when Leeds had possession.
Odegaard – 7
A fine full debut from the loanee, who looks like a class act. I did not imagine him and Smith Rowe starting together, but between them they could be a devastatingly effective twin pivot to unpick even the most recalcitrant of defences.
Saka – 8
I’m running out of superlatives for Bukayo. It’s not just that he runs, passes and dribbles so well. It’s that he does it in ways and in places that really affect the game. Should have had two penalties, not one. Was a thorn in the Leeds side for the whole match.
Aubameyang – 9
A great ‘Gentleman’s Hat Trick’ (one from open play, one from a dead ball and one from a header). He has scored five in his last two starts. If he’s back to the Auba we know and love so well for the rest of the season that’s (literally) a game changer for us.
Willian – 4
As others have said, he just seems to suck the energy out of the team whenever he comes on.
Elneny – 6.5
Came on on 78 minutes and was his usual tidy, industrious self. Contributed to us safely seeing out the game.
Holding – N/A
Got a couple of minutes at the end to help shore up the defence.