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Arsenal 4-2 Leeds
by Layth Yousif
at the Emirates Stadium
ARSENAL nearly turned an intended Valentine’s Day massacre over Leeds United into heartbreak, before holding on for a 4-2 victory at the Emirates on Sunday.
In an exciting game on a freezing afternoon, captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang led the way with his first Gunners hat-trick, with Hector Bellerin grabbing the other.
Yet, with Pascal Struijk and Helder Costa notching two goals in quick reply after the interval for Marcelo Bielsa’s side, to prompt serious thoughts of an unlikely recovery for the visitors on a rain-lashed afternoon in north London, the fact that the home team emerged triumphant was satisfaction enough.
Mikel Arteta’s half-time instruction was revealing. “I told them that if there is a team that can bounce back and still believe they can come here and beat us, that’s Leeds.”
But the Gunners weathered the storm metaphorically and figuratively, aided by Aubameyang’s first start for nearly a month, as he made it seven goals in his last five appearances at the Emirates.
With eight long days to ponder the miserable 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa last time out, Arteta made rang the changes, as Martin Odegaard made his first start in red and white.
With Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey still missing, Dani Ceballos and Aubameyang returned, while David Luiz returned from suspension to replace Rob Holding.
There was a reunion of sorts when Leeds defender Luke Ayling returned to the Emirates, a stadium he graced 12 years previously when he was part of the 2009 FA Youth Cup final side that triumphed against Liverpool. So much was expected of that gilded team, but the majority fell by the wayside. Ayling did too, rebooting his career at Yeovil before rising through the divisions with Leeds, an integral part of their resurrection.
Who would have thought it would be nearly 17 years between league games the mighty Leeds played at Arsenal, with their last clash coming in April 2004?
The Gunners were on their way to an unbeaten season and immortality via invincibility and destroyed the visitors 5-0 on a never-to-forgotten evening at long-lost Highbury, aided by four goals from the peerless Thierry Henry.
Both clubs have suffered to varying degrees since then, with Leeds struggling in the wilderness of lower league football, so much so, that their legions of loyal fans took to singing: “We’re not famous anymore.”
The Gunners, for their part, atrophied during the final years of Arsene Wenger’s rein, and are still tentatively finding a route back to the top, after the unhappy tenure of Unai Emery, whose failure which brought Arteta to the role — a role in which he is still very much learning on the job.
With two defeats in two and only one point gained from the last nine, the Spaniard knew he had to galvanise his team following defeats at Villa and Wolves.
They didn’t disappoint, with a powerful display of verve and muscularity, creativity and work rate.
Arsenal went ahead in the 13th minute through Aubameyang’s excellent strike.
The 31-year-old, back in the starting XI after missing nearly a month due to an unspecified illness to his mother, looked fit and hungry when driving at the backpedalling Ayling, before cutting inside from the left to fire low inside Illan Meslier’s near post to make it 1-0.
“It’s been a tough time for me but now it’s time to get the smile back, win games and score goals,” said a delighted Aubameyang afterwards, notching the Gunners 40th Premier League treble, more than any other side.
While the visitors were lacking the influential Kalvin Phillips, sandwiched between Arsenal’s opening goal, they did have a pair of chances that tested Bernd Leno at his near post.
A minute before the opener, Patrick Bamford’s header was kept out by Leno, following Jack Harrison’s cross, while the same player also had an effort saved on 26 minutes.
Sixty seconds later, Ayling’s desperate lunge blocked Aubameyang’s goalbound effort after Luiz’s cross.
Shortly afterwards there was drama when referee Stuart Attwell overruled his original award of a penalty. The official deemed the contact between Bukayo Saka and Leeds captain Liam Cooper to be insufficient to justify a spot-kick once he viewed the monitor. While the home side were annoyed, there was no deep sense of injustice as VAR and Attwell did their job.
However, in a strange few minutes, the official once again awarded a penalty to Arsenal. Saka was felled in the box by Meslier whose dithering invited the vibrant teenager to harass his attempts to clear, resulting in the former Lorient shot-stopper clipping him.
This time Attwell didn’t change his mind and Aubameyang slotted home with aplomb to make it 2-0 four minutes before the beak.
The Gunners made it 3-0 just before half-time after excellent persistence in the Leeds box was rewarded. Showing composure, Arteta’s side worked the ball around a resolute backline, which was finally unpicked by a wonderful nutmeg by Dani Ceballos to tee up Bellerin — who fired home emphatically at Meslier’s near-post.
Two minutes after the break the Gunners made it 4-0 when Emile Smith Rowe ball into the middle found Aubameyang who nodded home for his treble.
“He was superb,” Arteta said of the hat-trick hero, “He’s been training very well in the last week or so, he was back to normal, he looked committed and really hungry. If he’s in that kind of form we’re going to be closer to winning football matches.”
Yet, just as thoughts turned to that rout of Leeds at Highbury 16 years ago, Struijk emphatically nodded home in a crowded area to make it 4-1 on 58 minutes.
The goal highlighted the inherent weakness with zonal making, in that you have to attack space as a defender which is difficult sometimes, especially when you’ve got an opponent powering into your patch as Struijk did to a leaden Luiz, who also lost possession 21 times in another unconvincing match from the Brazilian defender.
Leeds’ tails were suddenly up and 11 minutes later the score became 4-2, substitute Costa slotting home at the near-post in the lashing rain to boost Bielsa’s side further. With 21 minutes still remaining it was game on.
As Leeds pushed Arsenal onto the back foot, many Gooners’ thoughts turned to the infamous 4-4 draw at Newcastle this month 10 years ago, when the Gunners raced into a 4-0 lead, only for the home side to pull four goals back to stun the Gunners in a match that still haunts many of the red and white persuasion even now.
However, Arsenal repelled the visitors ambitions, and there was still time for Cedric Soares to elicit an excellent full-length diving save from the 20-year-old Meslier after a well-struck long-range effort.
Incredibly, given the season Arteta’s side have had, a look at the Premier League table after the final whistle saw the Gunners a mere six points off Liverpool in fourth place, albeit in 10th spot.
Arsenal now make the trip to Rome to take on Benfica in the Europa League on Thursday and with Manchester City next up at the Emirates followed by a visit to Leicester, it is probably best to avoid making any predictions.
Yet the outstanding form of Smith Rowe, Odegaard and Saka, along with Aubameyang, who walked off with the match ball, will certainly give Pep Guardiola and his team more food for thought than the Gunners poor performance during their previous clash, a 4-1 League Cup defeat three days before Christmas, as Arteta continues to rebuild his side, with the promise of further entertainment as memorable as this one.
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