There’s an old saying: While all around you are losing their heads and having their games postponed, go and give Leeds a solid thrashing. Oooh, we thrashed them good. Sure, some of it was of their own making because I can’t remember the last time I saw a Premier League team give the ball away as often as that, but we still had to do something with it when we got it, and if you’ve watched Arsenal with any frequency in recent times, you’ll be aware this has sometimes been a challenge.
Not last night. Not with three parts of our Fab Four starting. Gabriel Martinelli scored twice, Martin Odegaard was fantastic and provided one of the assists of the season, Bukayo Saka scored, and to cap it all off, Emile Smith Rowe came on to give the scoreline the dominance it deserved after we’d given them a morsel of belief when Ben White conceded a penalty.
The opening was frenetic, we had four attempts on goal inside the first 15 minutes, and Alexandre Lacazette really should have opened the scoring with just the keeper to beat. Saka put the rebound wide when he should have scored too, Tierney had a pop, and this was eye-catching stuff.
We went ahead in the 16th minute and there was a lot to like about the goal. The way we pressed Leeds into mistake then another mistake, and then Martinelli’s emphatic finish after Lacazette had poked the ball away from the defender. I liked it all, and I liked how it came about 60 seconds after the young Brazilian had been clattered on the halfway line. His response was to punish them in the best way possible.
His second came from an unlikely source – a threaded Granit Xhaka pass – but he still had work to do. It looked as if the ball had just got caught under his feet and with the keeper coming out I concerned he might have just let the opportunity pass him by, but it basically boils down to me worrying too much. He saw Meslier coming, and dinked it beyond him at the last second to make it 2-0. That’s 4 goals in 6 games for him, and this tactic of Lacazette dropping deep to leave him space to run into worked particularly well against Leeds’ very specific man-marking system.
Afterwards, Arteta was keen to praise the players for executing the game-plan well, but it also seems like it was a good plan. A third goal before half-time made life quite comfortable, Saka’s brilliant movement, and more uncertain defending from them because of the pressure we put them under, saw him fire a deflected shot in at the near post. By the end of the first period, we’d had 11 shots on target, on Sky they kept saying that was the most any team has had since Opta records began. For a side which has been infamously shot-shy, this is a very welcome development.
Obviously the second half wasn’t as dynamic and to be honest, I understand this. Leeds didn’t have a shot on target until the 72nd minute and had White not slid in clumsily the way he did, chances are they wouldn’t have scored at all. We were in control, not wasting energy ahead of a schedule which gets really hectic next week (assuming the games go ahead), and while playing like that and holding the opposition at arms length isn’t particularly thrilling, it’s a good thing to be able to do when you’re three goals ahead.
As an aside, I did laugh at White and Ramsdale high-fiving each other over that ‘good’ tackle when they both knew quite clearly he’d got none of the ball. I recognise that this is because these guys are new and likeable, it wouldn’t be as amusing if it were Mustafi and Cech for example, but these lads have some moxy, and I can’t help but like their attempt to put some doubt in the referee’s mind.
There were, perhaps, a couple of moments which caused some nervousness after they scored. We’ve had some traumatic results in recent years where even the opposition scoring a consolation in the 89th minute when we’re 6-0 up evokes the terror of St James’ Park, but then Smith Rowe came on, and put things to bed. Again, Leeds were sloppy, Odegaard took it on and I can’t talk highly enough about the precision and weight of his pass into the run of the substitute while on the run himself. Smith Rowe’s finish was as confident as it gets, he’s rapidly heading towards double-figures for goals this season, and I think our overall performance deserved the scoreline to be as resounding as it was in the end.
Afterwards, the manager was full of praise for Martinelli, but again his comments on him (following the ones after West Ham) were interesting. Asked by Sky how big a step he’s taken of late, Arteta said:
Huge. But as well as you have to prepare a player. You cannot throw a player in when you think he’s not ready, and Gabi has made the right steps, he’s evolving in the right direction, and the ceiling is I don’t know where because he has so much he needs to improve.
He’s very humble, he works hard and puts his head down, and when that happens, and his big passion in life is football, big things are going to happen with him.
There has been frustration that we haven’t seen more of him, but if this is the result of honing his talent with coaching, with developmental work etc, then it will have been worth it. Even compared to the player who started the season he looks a different animal, and it’s one that is more than capable of doing it at this level.
And on the team itself, he continued:
Three games in a week, three wins. Three physical games as well and I’m really pleased.
He should be. This has been a very positive week for us. While others have seen games postponed and now face an increasingly difficult fixture pile-up, we’ve beaten a team who will be a rival for a European place, banished some of our away demons with a very good win at Leeds, and seen the future of this team continue to emerge in a really exciting way.
I know there’s a lot of focus on the forward line, and rightly so, but I wanted to give some props to Takehiro Tomiyasu for his performance last night. Well, not just last night, but overall, since his arrival, he’s added a level of consistency and security to the right hand side which is just so pleasing/comforting. Hopefully the injury he went off with last night isn’t too bad, but you could see immediately how we missed him when he was replaced.
All in all, an important, impressive win and performance. The three points cement our place in the top four while the rest have to play catch up and deal with games in hand, and to be in this position at Christmas when you consider how the season started is something which deserves a lot of credit. The players, the manager, his staff, it’s working right now – even with some bumps in the road which are hard to deal with. Maintaining this level and this consistency is next, but that’s just a really nice challenge to have when you think about some of the alternatives.