The Premier League show staggers on and, amid a decimated schedule, Arsenal stole it to strengthen their hold on fourth place. They made mincemeat of a weakened and thoroughly disorientated Leeds, effectively winning the game by half-time and threatening enough goals to fill an entire Match of the Day schedule on their own. A closer second period at least guaranteed that Marcelo Bielsa’s side, raucously backed throughout, were applauded off but another heavy defeat means they remain precariously positioned above the relegation zone.
For a short, heady spell after Raphinha battered a 75th-minute penalty past Aaron Ramsdale, this threatened to be a contest. That had just never seemed on: Arsenal could have led by six or seven at the interval without feeling too embarrassed, tearing into space at will and thoroughly exposing opponents who were hamstrung from the start. Leeds may have escaped a ravaging by the Omicron outbreak for now but still arrived without nine first-teamers, all through injury and suspension bar the unwell Diego Llorente, and it would have taken an incorrigible optimist to imagine a makeshift defence holding firm.
Bielsa had rushed Robin Koch back from injury while, at right-back, the 20-year-old Cody Drameh was asked to make a first top-flight start. Arsenal scented blood from the word go and could have scored at least twice before taking the lead, although the fact they ran riot owed as much to Leeds’ approach as the uncertainty of their stand-in personnel. There was no compromising Bielsa’s usual high-octane, maximum-risk approach; they do not know how to shut up shop and the outcome was signposted within the first three minutes, when Illan Meslier made fine saves to deny Alexandre Lacazette and Thomas Partey. The keeper was exercised regularly but there was never much sense his good work would influence the outcome.
“In the first half the difference could have been bigger,” Bielsa admitted. “They managed to provoke mistakes in our own half. That made it easier for them to attack.” That pretty much covered it.
Arsenal opened the scoring when a passing move from the back broke down and Bukayo Saka began a sequence that saw Granit Xhaka tumble near the edge of the area, the ball running to Adam Forshaw. There was time to clear but Forshaw dawdled and allowed Lacazette, again captaining in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s absence, to stick in a toe. Gabriel Martinelli was perfectly positioned to sweep in and Arsenal did not look back.
“He’s getting a level of maturity,” Mikel Arteta said of the Brazilian, who also scored in Wednesday’s win against West Ham and is proving that life after Aubameyang may be lived to the full. “He’s so willing to learn. His passion in life is football, you can see that on the pitch.”
Martinelli showed it again when Stuart Dallas failed to find Joe Gelhardt and, with Leeds’ defensive shape reliably awry, Xhaka could slide him through. He dinked past the overly exposed Meslier after holding off Drameh and, with more than an hour left, Leeds were in trouble. They conceded a third when Saka, refusing to give up after his crossfield run had initially been snuffed out, earned some luck with a shot that fizzed in via Mateusz Klich’s deflection. At that point a repeat of Tuesday’s 7-0 embarrassment at Manchester City, inflicted with a comparative glut of riches at their disposal, looked entirely possible.
“We were really effective,” Arteta said, although Arsenal had less joy after the break. The home support were kept interested, and angry, when Xhaka was not dismissed for crunching Raphinha’s ankle with a challenge that went over the ball. It seemed a yellow card offence at the barest minimum but no punishment was forthcoming. Leeds rode the ripple of indignation and Raphinha, who had shot wide when well placed after the opener, dusted himself down to lead the charge. They were given their chance to reduce the deficit when Gelhardt, a 19-year-old who showed up time and again, was fouled by Ben White near the byline. Raphinha converted from the spot but Arsenal weathered the squall that followed.
Arteta could always pull out something in reserve and brought on Emile Smith Rowe, who had seen off West Ham’s challenge with a fine strike after coming off the bench. He did something similar here, winning the ball near halfway before surging towards the box and latching on to an ingenious scooped pass from Martin Ødegaard. His eighth goal of the season was dispatched mercilessly and, while Arsenal’s pursuers have games in hand, they have points in the bag.
“It puts pressure on them,” Arteta said. “We were really lucky to play today with everything that’s happening. I told the players to enjoy the game and give everything because I don’t know how this will develop.” If the music does have to stop, at least they can admire the view.