Arsenal – Leeds United: Gunners’ Grasp On Top Four Goes From Strength To Strength (2-1)
In a fixture where both outfits had it all to gain, the class of the favorites set them apart. Mikel Arteta moved the pieces on the chessboard to allow the left edge to flourish, setting the tone for a showing where Arsenal ought to have mowed down their guests long before the final whistle.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
It’s the time of year when the battle for the top four devolves into a dogfight where the least imperfect outfit come out on top. An abject run of form since the international break from Chelsea still threatens to drag them back into the race, while Spurs dropped four points in their final two games during April. Their local rivals in the north of the capital have taken the initiative: Arsenal have bounced back from three losses on the spin to go back into fourth spot. Champions League qualification is in their hands.
Survival is imperative for their visitors. The ride for Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa had its share of peaks and troughs, but their frailties were too much to bear. Jesse Marsch has since taken the reins, shoring up the defense. But to his ill fortune, Everton and Burnley have also hit form at the right time. Far from secure in the top flight, a return to winning ways forces their competitors to hold their nerve.
Injuries have not coerced Mikel Arteta to stray from a 4-2-3-1 shape in the longer run. In the absence of Ben White, Rob Holding partnered Gabriel Magalhães at the back. Mohamed Elneny filled in next to Granit Xhaka in the middle of the park, and Eddie Nketiah operated as the lone striker. Hence, the Arsenal manager only made one alteration to the starting eleven he picked for the trip to West Ham United. Cédric Soares stepped in at right back, forcing Takehiro Tomiyasu to move to the left flank.
Marsch brought three new men into the fold after a valiant but futile performance in a 4-0 defeat to Manchester City. Stuart Dallas had suffered a fracture to his thigh bone last time out, prompting a reshuffle at the back. Pascal Struijk also dropped to the bench, so the visitors returned to a back four, where Diego Llorente and Robin Koch sat at the heart of the defense. Daniel James earned a starting berth at the other end of the pitch, and Rodrigo Moreno made way for the youthful Joe Gelhardt.
Nketiah answers the call
Keen to pull clear of the chasing pack, Arsenal went ahead within a mere five minutes. Illan Meslier picked up the ball in a buildup sequence, pivoting to his left to find Llorente. However, his loose first touch merely drew another wave of pressure from Nketiah, whose attentive attitude drew first blood.
The forward would soon cash in again to heap more angst on his former club. The left edge was again the source of danger, featuring a piece of combination play between Tomiyasu and Martinelli. Xhaka then fed the ball down the line toward Martinelli, who tore away from three blue shirts before drilling a cutback into the path of Nketiah. The poacher lived up to his reputation, promptly doubling the lead.
Eddie Nketiah vs. Leeds United:— Football Daily (@footballdaily) May 8, 2022
90 minutes played
2 shots on target
14 passes (93.3% accuracy)
7 ground duels (5 won)
Big performance. 💪 pic.twitter.com/JqYxzqB2B5
Arteta adjusts, principles persist
Leeds toiled to make inroads on the scoreline but could not produce a single effort before the break. Arsenal’s distinctive playing style came to the fore through their scheme off the ball. Their 4-2-3-1 formation high up the field often morphed into a 4-4-2 medium block, where Martin Ødegaard stood next to Nketiah. Within either structure, Arteta had made several adjustments to stifle their opponents.
Nketiah tended to move over to his left to Robin Koch. So, Ødegaard faced the task of keeping an eye on Leeds’ pair of central midfielders. He did not shuttle between Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Phillips, nor did he always track the ball sided midfielder. Instead, he mainly marked Phillips to cut out access to a central figure for the away team on the ball. Bukayo Saka could then sweep across the backline to follow the advances of Junior Firpo, letting Cédric Soares stay deeper. If the right winger did jump out at Llorente to block outward access to the left back, his teammate was on hand to offer extra help.
Klich was the free man for Leeds to their right, where Arsenal defended a little differently. Martinelli pressed Luke Ayling as the deeper of the two fullbacks, while Xhaka swapped between picking up Klich and James between the lines. Several cues in this scheme forced the defenders to be aggressive off the front. Gabriel and Holding picked up dropping movements from Gelhardt. In the same way, Arteta’s choice of Tomiyasu at a left back set out to stop any creative ball carrying from Raphinha.
12th minute: pressing sequence from Arsenal. Nketiah and Martinelli press the back four, forcing the play down the line. Ødegaard marks Phillips; once Xhaka leaves James with Gabriel, he prepares to jump out to Klich. Ayling passes the ball to Raphinha, but Tomiyasu’s wider position lets him prevent a forward facing first touch. However, the left back fouls his opposite man, giving away a free kick.
Ayling abandons his comrades
Conversely, Arteta’s men continued to threaten with the ball thanks to their patterns of play. Saka and Ødegaard often rotated lanes on the right, where Holding was a focal point at the base of the offensive structure. To the left, Xhaka operated higher than Elneny, opting not to maintain a static double pivot. But Arteta had modified the dynamics on the flank. A more conservative left back, Tomiyasu, gave Martinelli free rein on the last line to wreak havoc. Time and again, he was the thorn in Leeds’ side.
The hosts spared Leeds from conceding a third goal that might have led to a hiding, but obstacles kept arising. In the 25th minute, Ødegaard swept the play over the back four, setting away Martinelli to the byline. His teammate turned inward to drive into the penalty area, only for Luke Ayling to obstruct his progress. His firm lunge underwent a review from VAR that deemed the tackle worthy of a red card.
I feel like I never have any reason to doubt that Martinelli will escape situations where he’s completely smothered. Even when his touches aren’t the cleanest and he doesn’t have *complete* control, he’s so persistent and so good at finding some kind of escape.— PM (@ThatGooner) May 8, 2022
Marsch marshals his weary warriors
Now down by a man to add to the two goal deficit, Marsch turned to the bench. Struijk came on for Gelhardt, partnering Llorente as a central defender. Koch then filled the hole at right back, receiving support from Raphinha against Martinelli. James was now the lone forward in a 4-4-1 block that kept a shutout until half time. But only one outfit retained any chance of taking any points from this game.
Not any closer to swinging the tide after the break, Leeds had fallen back into a 5-3-1 shape where Raphinha dropped to the right of Koch to act as a wing-back. Tomiyasu’s more permanent inversion from the left flank was the ensuing adjustment from Arsenal, probing the low block from new angles.
Imo one of the hardest things to do as a manager is respond to the opposition going down to 10. Arteta used Tomiyasu in a really interesting role after the red card: pic.twitter.com/mJub9uPEtU— Jon Mackenzie (@Jon_Mackenzie) May 8, 2022
But just after the hour mark, they gained a lifeline. Phillips whipped a cross from a corner to the near post, where Firpo nodded the ball to Llorente. His teammate had wandered away from the crowd of bodies, slotting a strike past Aaron Ramsdale at the far post halve the deficit with his side’s first shot.
Out of nowhere, Arsenal were no longer in the clear. The home team would face another two efforts before full time, as Rodrigo was closest to equalizing at the death. However, Leeds never looked as if they would thwart Arsenal’s dominance. Arteta’s young guns march on in their bid for a top four spot.
Although the conclusion of this match was more stressful than it should have been, Arsenal merited the victory, rekindling verve on a left flank that has been short of punch recently. But no matter how it happened, the outcome is invaluable at the tail end of the campaign. Spurs exceeded the expectations of many to draw at Anfield, but Arteta’s men still sit four points ahead of their rivals. If they win the derby on Thursday on enemy territory, bragging rights and Champions League football are theirs.
Marsch has stressed the fight in which his men find themselves. This loss has affirmed that state of affairs. Everton have won three games in their last five to consign Leeds to 18th position. Meanwhile, losing their two primary options for the right back slot befits a season where injuries have curtailed chances of building chemistry. Yet only a point adrift of safety, their destiny is far from a certainty. Perhaps their clash with a lackadaisical Chelsea outfit will offer the next twist in this relegation tale.
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