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Arsenal 4 v 2 Leeds United
Barclays Premier League
Sunday, 14th February 2021 Kick-off 16:30
Yet another London defeat as Leeds go down to Arsenal
Sunday, 14th Feb 2021 22:39 by Tim Whelan

We can take comfort from the way we kept battling in this game, but the damage had been done in the first 47 minutes, and the task of coming back from four goals down proved to be too great.

We had just the one change to make, as Kalvin Phillips had failed to recover from the strain he picked up against Palace, so Shackleton was in to replace him. That could have been a simple like for like, but Shackleton had struggled the time he filled the central midfield role earlier in the season, so Bielsa opted for a more complicated reshuffle.

Shackleton played right back, with Ayling moving to central defence, and Struijk going forward into midfield. Arsenal made five changes of their own, though two were Leno and Luiz returning from one match bans. Pepe was dropped to the bench, perhaps to avoid another clash with Alioski, but their most significant change proved to be Aubameyang’s recall to the starting line-up.

Arsenal made a lively start to the game, though it was Leeds who had the first effort on target. Bamford met a cross from Harrison to turn it goalwards with a smart header, but Leno had read it well and was in position to make the save. But that was only a temporary respite from Arsenal’s pressure, and the gunners took the lead in the 13th minute.

Aubameyang cut in from the left and mesmerised Ayling with a quick step-over, while Meslier seemed to anticipate a shot across him towards the far corner. But the Arsenal man managed to squeeze his shot between Ayling and Cooper and inside the near post, with Meslier wrong-footed and having too much ground to make up when he changed direction.

We had another good moment midway through the half, when Raphinha cut in from the right and played it across to Harrison, but Harrison took a little too long to get the ball onto his left foot, and by the time he did Leno was in position to make the save. But after that it was all Arsenal for the remaining 20 minutes of the first half.

Luke Ayling made a tremendous late block to deflect a shot from Aubameyang over the bar, and then it was the VAR man’s turn to ensure it remained 1-0 to the Arsenal. Stuart Attwell gave a penalty when Saka went down after a challenge from Cooper, which I thought was a little soft. So did the man in Stockley Park, and after Attwell to the advice to go to the monitor, he reversed his decision.

But then things began to go seriously pear-shaped. Meslier made a complete hash to trying to dribble the ball out of his box, and Saka was on the floor after he came in to challenge. This time the penalty stood, and Aubameyang stepped up to confidently smash the ball into the corner of the net. And there was worse to come for our makeshift defence.

And just before the break Arsenal were left to pass the ball around at will in our penalty area, and at the end of the move Bellerin was able to glide past Alioski to hammer the ball past Meslier from a tight angle. Our young keeper might have done better, and his first half had been a stark contrast to his impressive Leeds debut at the same venue in the FA Cup game a little over 12 months earlier.

It was inevitable that Marcello Bielsa would make changes at half time, and one substitution saw Tyler Roberts coming on for Klich, who apparently had been feeling under the weather and probably shouldn’t have started the game. And Harrison replaced Helda Costa, but I couldn’t help thinking that was a change for the sake of making a change, as we had bigger problems elsewhere on the field.

The first two minutes after the break did nothing to convince me it was a great substitution, as Helda Costa dallied too long when the ball was cleared out to him, and lost the ball once he was surrounded by four Arsenal players. Smith Rowe sent a cross beyond the far post, where Aubameyang was left with plenty of space to head home and complete his hat-trick.

As I started to think I couldn’t take any more of this Leeds performance, my eyes drifted to the huge ‘Visit Rwanda’ adverts in the stand that formed the backdrop to the TV coverage. Has any Arsenal fan actually been to Rwanda as result of these signs? And given the fact that you can’t go there in present circumstances, couldn’t the Arsenal commercial department come up with anything a little less pointless?

Back in the real world, somebody called Niall Huggins came on to replace Alioski, who hadn’t quite had the afternoon he told us he had been looking forward to earlier in the week. This involved Dallas going to left back, while Huggins played in midfield. And while I had given up on the game, thankfully the team are made of sterner stuff, and on 58 minutes we began a fightback of sorts.

Raphinha had a shot tipped round the post, but when he took the resulting corner he picked out Struijk, who ran in and beat Leno with a powerful header to pull one back. He said he was going for heading practise after all his wayward efforts in the Palace game, and it looks like it’s have paid off right away. He’ll be a powerful weapon at set pieces if he can consistently head the ball in the right direction.

And on 68 minutes it was 4-2 as the first two substitutes combined, as a cross from Roberts enabled Costa to race into the box to score with his right foot. I always said he was a great player. Could we complete a remarkable comeback to force a 4-4 draw, as Newcastle once did from 4-0 down against the Gunners?

It could have been interesting if we’d got a penalty when Bamford was sandwiched by two defenders as he raced into the box, but nothing doing. After that Arteta shored up his defence with Elneny replacing Odegaard, and although we kept pressing to look for another breakthrough, they were able to hold on with no further major scares.

And it could have got worse at the other end as Aubameyang hit the woodwork, while Meslier made partial amends for his earlier clangers with a smart save from a viciously swerving shot. Four extra minutes were shown on the board, and Alan Smith wondered why we played on beyond that time, despite the fact that Aubameyang had needed treatment after injury time had begun. I’m so glad that my Sky subscription pays the wages of such a buffoon.

And so we completed another disappointing defeat in this hit and miss season, once again with a makeshift defence. It seems that Kalvin Phillips is the one player we always struggle to cope without, now that we’ve tried several players in his role without success. Perhaps we could try Dallas there next, as he’s played in just about everywhere else, as that would mean we could avoid pulling several others away from their natural position.

This result saw Arsenal take our place in the top half of the table, and we still haven’t won a game in London under Bielsa. But as everyone keeps saying on social media, we’d have gladly taken our current position when the season started. So mustn’t grumble.

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