Arsenal drew 0-0 with Leeds at Elland Road on Sunday evening.
Looking at it on paper, a side struggling for form and direction secured a point away at a tough opponent with ten men – Arsenal’s first draw of the season.
That is actually true. Pretending that comes close to encapsulating those 95 minutes, however, is wildly inaccurate.
One hour before kick-off and the build-up was about as clean as it could be: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing down the middle with Joe Willock just off him as a No. 10. In terms of suiting the desires of the fanbase, that was close to perfection.
The first half drifted by with Leeds steadily improving as the minutes went on, culminating in a final flurry of efforts at goal where wasteful finishing and Bernd Leno saved Arsenal’s skin.
In need of a dramatic improvement after the break, the introduction of Reiss Nelson for Willian tended to the needs of all fans watching on. Excluding the players absent, it was almost the ideal team.
Then Nicolas Pepe did that.
Faced with a barrage of shots that were kept out by a combination of Leno and the woodwork, Arsenal clung on to the draw, even going close through Bukayo Saka‘s breakaway opportunity.
Here’s what we learned.
Mikel Arteta is Trying to Change
While the attacking display left a lot to be desired, nobody can blame Mikel Arteta for being unwilling to change. The 4-3-3 was a much more recognisable 4-2-3-1, Aubameyang through the middle and Willock pushed up to play just off him.
Before a ball was kicked, no more could have been asked of the manager excluding, perhaps, Willian being benched. These were bold calls from a man who’d, unjustly, received scathing assessments of his managerial credentials following the Aston Villa defeat. Criticism was absolutely deserved, but the amount of scorn directed his way was excessive.
Implementing large alterations to the team setup and making wise substitutions, it signals an understanding of the issues within this squad, the like of which he can only solves with the players at his disposal.
While Sunday’s performance was lacking in many departments, it’s a big ask for a change of shape and personnel to immediately click into action and work fluidly. It was hardly inspiring at Elland Road, but at least Arteta has shown he’s aware of the deficiencies and working to amend them.
Ball Progression, Ball Progression, Ball Progression
Without Thomas Partey in this team, the above is a foreign concept.
Brought in for that very reason, his absence on Sunday was a telling one. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos played at the midfield pair, taking it in turns to push five yards higher or press all the way back to Leeds’ goal.
What they didn’t do was move the ball up the pitch.
The lack of interchangeability in attack ensures any possession in the final third is recycled back and forth between the wide areas, with no decisive passes or movement in behind. That, however, is when Arsenal actually get there.
Alexandre Lacazette was dropped in favour of Aubameyang centrally, yet it could have been Yaya Sanogo playing as the centre-forward. It was evident how much Arsenal struggled to play the ball through the thirds with the number of times the captain came short.
In the side to stretch the Leeds backline, he felt it a necessity to drop deep just to be involved in the play. Willock couldn’t help as he rarely had options around him when he collected the ball, leaving Arsenal to play almost exclusively in the middle third.
There were chances there to break through the first line of press and progress with the ball. Without Partey, or even Mohamed Elneny who’s improved his passing range to cater to that shortage, the play is laborious and pedestrian. David Luiz, while no saviour, also helps in this respect.
Arsenal Are (Even More) Dependent on Bukayo Saka
This is nothing new. It’s been clear for months.
What is new, is that it’s even greater than we ever thought imaginable. Our best player this season – excluding Gabriel Magalhaes, although he’s perhaps in front – the dependency this team has on the 19-year-old stretches beyond our wildest expectations.
He played barely 30 minutes but he was the Gunners’ best player. He knew when to drop deep and add bodies in midfield just as well as he knew which time to strike and make diagonal runs at the Leeds defence. A truly remarkable footballing brain and a simply outstanding young footballer.
Arsenal need ten more of him.
Our inability to create chances without him is a damning indictment of how turgid this side is offensively, so all we can do is cross our fingers that his absence isn’t long-term. Can end the season there if it is.
Actions speak louder than words.
Over the international break, Pepe publicly expressed his frustrations at being benched this season. It’s a common occurrence during these periods of the campaign for players to speak out on their club woes, with the Ivorian’s disgruntlement not without basis. Scoring and assisting in Europe, he wanted his chance in the Premier League.
Arteta granted him that wish, and Pepe spat it right back in his face.
You can not, ever, under any circumstances, excuse his actions. Not for one second.
Wanting to make a statement and justify his inclusion, the lasting impression is one of embarrassment and idiocy.
Players get sent off, it’s part of the game. Sometimes your willingness to succeed is so great that your emotions boil over, as seen with Eddie Nketiah‘s red card last season. Pepe headbutted someone. It’s on another level.
What is even more incensing is that he had shown consistency in the first half. Far from great, there were some neat touches and good pressing. Defensively he was lacking, but there was actually signs of something.
We’re still to fully figure out who Pepe actually is. What we learned tonight is that his issues lie beyond talent.