Of all the questions to be asked of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, and there are many, it is a curious fact that his team can be tenaciously and doggedly resilient when they need to be. This has not been a quality associated with Arsenal for some time, yet Arteta’s side are showing themselves to be consistently capable of digging in deep and protecting their goal.
As for the rest of their game? Well, there is clearly plenty of work to be done. But all of those issues with creativity and stodgy attacking were forgotten from the moment Nicolas Pepe was sent off for a moment of breathtaking petulance here.
With Arsenal already struggling against a typically energetic Leeds United, Pepe’s headbutt on Ezgjan Alioski was the height of idiocy. His brainlessness sent his side into reverse, forcing them deep into their own half where they had to cling onto their point with genuine desperation. “It is very clear that it was unacceptable,” said a furious Arteta.
From the moment Pepe trudged down the tunnel, Arsenal battled commendably. Rob Holding, Gabriel Magalhães and Kieran Tierney led their defensive efforts with grit and spirit. “I really liked the personality of the team when Pepe let the team down, how we stuck to do what we had to do,” said Arteta.
Still, the visitors must count themselves fortunate that Marcelo Bielsa’s attackers were in a wasteful mood. The home side poured forward against the ten men, creating chance after chance, but they were routinely denied by either the woodwork or by an opposing body.
As Arsenal counted down the clock, blocking everything they could, Holding issued a final battle cry. “That’s brilliant, boys,” the defender roared after Gabriel intercepted a stinging shot with a rather sensitive part of the body. “Keep it going.”
Leeds can only ask themselves how they did not win this game. They staged a battering in the second half, yet the Arsenal wall simply would not crumble. On another day they might have scored three or four. Instead, Patrick Bamford, Rodrigo Moreno and Raphinha all found the post rather than the net.
“The game had two moments,” said Bielsa. “The first hour when we played 11 v 11, which we dominated, and the final half an hour when the dominance was even more clear. Offensively we did enough to deserve to have established a lead. We missed a lot of chances.”
In all Leeds had 25 attempts on goal, yet only four of those hit the target. And for all the home side’s control, Arsenal could rightly claim to have created the best chance of the game, with Bukayo Saka denied after racing through on the opposing goal in the second half.
The focus on Arsenal’s gutsy defending should not detract too much from their ongoing struggles at the other end. Arteta’s side have scored just nine goals in nine matches this season, and have not found the net from open play in the league for almost eight hours. “It will come,” the manager said. It needs to, and soon.
By the end of the first half it was complete dominance for Leeds, with a series of darting runs and passes causing chaos against an Arsenal midfield that looked leggy. Jack Harrison was causing all sorts of problems down the left wing, and Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno had to react quickly to two efforts by Bamford.
Beyond that there were glimpses of goal for Raphinha, Luke Ayling and Mateusz Klich as Arsenal struggled to cope. Arteta had deployed young Joe Willock as an attacking midfielder and brought Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into a central position, but still they lacked fluency.
Before this game, Aubameyang had taken just seven shots on target this season. By contrast, Bamford had scored seven league goals already. The problem for Aubameyang is evidently not his own positioning, but the creative work of the players behind him. On this occasion there was no David Luiz to play passes from the back, due to the recent birth of his daughter, and no Thomas Partey in midfield as he recovers from a thigh injury.
Arteta cannot have been happy with what he had seen in the first half, but that disgruntlement became fury a few minutes after the break as Pepe nodded his head towards the forehead of Alioski. The red card was inevitable as soon as referee Anthony Taylor headed towards the pitchside monitor.
One man down, Arsenal were forced into a retreat. Leno was sharp again, diving across to stop Stuart Dallas from finding the top corner, before Bamford headed wide from Raphinha’s cross. Next to go close was substitute Rodrigo, who fired inches over from range and then curled a lovely effort onto the angle between crossbar and post.
Bamford was the second Leeds player to hit the woodwork, this time with a header, and Raphinha then did the same with a stabbed effort. In between, Saka was denied by Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier after charging away on the counter. Had he scored, it would have brought three points that Arsenal Pepe in particular did not deserve.