Arsenal add insult to injury in the latest phantom game

Arsenal destroyed Leeds because that was pretty much always going to be the case at the minute. It’s all starting to feel pointless again.


It was in August 1964 that Arsenal fronted the first edition of Match of the Day. Kenneth Wolstenholme and Walley Barnes provided commentary and brief on-pitch punditry from “Beatleville”, as the former called it, for their 3-2 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. It was the only game shown during the almost hour-long experimental highlights package, which is completely unrecognisable to its modern counterpart – a relative by name only, like a third cousin or that weird uncle you always hear stories about at family gatherings.

Not since those tentative early days has the title been quite so literal. This was the match of the day. The only match of the day. The saviour of Match of the Day. And while it has not been screened in black and white for decades, this was as grey and dull as Leeds might have feared.

Their list of absentees only grew during a bitterly dispiriting 90 minutes. As Jack Harrison made way for Crysencio Summerville after half an hour, the winger clearly still rather groggy from a prior clash with Gabriel, Leeds edged closer to being able to name a better unavailable XI than the starting line-up tasked with holding Arsenal at bay.

In Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford, their entire spine has been removed, not to mention a couple more major organs besides.

Arsenal donated nothing but more pain and punishment. A ruthless streak is slowly developing in this young but hungry and cold-blooded team; the gaps that quickly formed at Elland Road were explored and exploited to the fullest degree. Mikel Arteta called for “consistency”, “resilience” and the rather vague “something else” before the game. His request was not denied.

The Arsenal manager is no longer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s biggest problem. That is now Gabriel Martinelli, who strolled beyond what some might loosely describe as the Leeds defence to confidently add to his earlier opportunistic opener in the 28th minute. Jurgen Klopp noticed “a talent of the century” in the Brazilian and there has been no reason since to doubt the Liverpool manager’s perceptive abilities since. Martinelli feels an infinitely better fit in this side with his energy and industry. Even his finishing is levels above what Aubameyang has shown recently.

Martin Odegaard revelled in the space. Alexandre Lacazette made himself the ultimate nuisance. Bukayo Saka certainly enjoyed his night, adding a deflected third before the break. No team has ever recorded more shots on target in the first half of a Premier League game than the 11 Arsenal managed on Saturday evening. The freedom to attack would have stunned Wolstenholme and Barnes in the ’60s.

Leeds recovered a semblance of pride in a closer second half, but only when Arsenal were too busy rubbing their hands together with glee at a three-goal lead to rub more salt in wounds more open than the hosts’ midfield. Even Raphinha’s emphatic penalty was cancelled out by Emile Smith Rowe’s latest counter-attacking salvo.

But as that fourth goal went in, it did all feel a little futile, somewhat pointless, functional and perfunctory in nature. Gary Neville describing the Leeds defending as “like a team of Under 9s” as actual child Archie Gray was required to sit on a top-flight bench. Graeme Souness rightly pointing out the hosts were an “absolute shambles” but adding that they “aren’t going to win games in our Premier League” with “the way they’ve been asked to play”.

Graeme Souness' win percentage as a manager in "our Premier League": 33.8%.

Marcelo Bielsa's win percentage as a manager in… presumably not *his* Premier League? 38.1%.

— Football365 (@F365) December 18, 2021

Robin Koch, who Bielsa felt compelled to recall despite not being fully fit, ended the game by kicking most things that moved. The Leeds manager’s setup was poor, especially early on and particularly after the Manchester City debacle. But bringing on Summerville, Sam Greenwood and Liam McCarron rather underlined the challenges he is facing. The 66-year-old prefers to work with specifically smaller squads but there is no compensating for their injuries. Other teams have had their matches postponed over the past few days with fewer reported absentees.

That does not excuse the performance that followed. Leeds were atrocious at times, amateurish. But their display only matched the chaotic nature of their preparation. Arsenal are better equipped to deal with the circumstances and their recent improvement and momentum dealt with the rest. Even speaking in hindsight, the result was never likely to be any different.

But credit to them for rescuing our evening’s viewing with the latest in a series of games that don’t really feel as though they should be staged. Player welfare and the integrity of competition have rarely been quite so callously disregarded.

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