Arsenal nerves prove top-four spot is in balance
By Matt Law and Sam Dean
Jesse Marsch claimed Leeds United would be “screwed” if he pointed the finger at captain Luke Ayling and Illan Meslier for the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal that left his team with a mountain to climb in their fight for Premier League survival. Meslier gifted Arsenal an early lead before Ayling was sent off in the 27th minute for a ridiculous challenge on Gabriel Martinelli, when Leeds were already two goals down. The foul prompted TV pundit Jamie Carragher to observe: “I love Luke Ayling as a player, but what an idiot. The lack of professionalism for his own team-mates. It’s not just down to 10 men. Disgusting tackle, coming in two feet there. That might be the last ever game Ayling plays in the Premier League.” Leeds are now in the bottom three after the defeat and Everton’s 2-1 win at Leicester, but Marsch is sticking by his players. “If we start playing the blame game with players, we’re screwed,” he said. “We’ve got to stick together and fight for points, it’s not a time to point the finger.” Asked if he believed Leeds could get out of trouble, he said: “I do. We have to stay positive.” Arsenal took command of the race with arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur for Champions League qualification, and yet somehow left their supporters still fearing they could let a top-four place slip through their fingers. The way Arsenal handed a lifeline to a Leeds United team who played with 10 men for more than an hour and should have been buried in the first half will not have done a lot for the nerves ahead of Thursday’s north London derby, when a victory for Mikel Arteta’s team would clinch that spot in Europe’s elite competition. Eddie Nketiah scored twice in the opening 10 minutes and Arsenal should have been five or six goals ahead before Diego Llorente gave Leeds hope in a game that should have produced yet another blow to their terrible goal difference. Jesse Marsch may well argue that the fact his team hung on in there gives Leeds hope they can still climb out of the relegation zone, but the reality was that they had done pretty much everything in their power to gift Arsenal the most comfortable of afternoons, while Arteta’s side instead made life uncomfortable for themselves. Arsenal now have a four-point advantage over Tottenham and can still afford to lose to them. But they will want to get over the line as quickly as possible and avoid defeat and the kind of nervy end to the season that they inflicted upon themselves at the end of yesterday’s game. The half-time scoreline did not reflect the true horror of the visitors’ performance up to that point, or just how dominant Arsenal had been. The two goals from Nketiah, together with Leeds captain Luke Ayling’s red card, meant the game should already have been out of the visitors’ reach. Arsenal should have been out of sight thanks to a firsthalf performance that bordered on unprofessional from Marsch’s players. At one stage, when Raphinha briefly threatened to get himself sent off along with Ayling, it was a toss up over whether Arsenal could end up with more goals than the number of men Leeds would keep on the pitch. The tone was set in just the fifth minute, when Ayling sent a pass back to Illan Meslier that the goalkeeper should have dealt with comfortably. But Meslier took a heavy touch to allow Nketiah to pounce and the Frenchman was left with his head in his hands. There had not been too much wrong with Ayling’s pass for that first goal, but he was one of two players, along with Mateusz Klich, whom Gabriel Martinelli skipped past before crossing for Nketiah to double his and Arsenal’s tally in just the 10th minute. Ayling managed to clear a Martin Odegaard centre that had seemed certain to be converted, which was the one thing he did right during a shambolic performance, before receiving his red card. The Leeds right-back jumped into an attempted tackle on Martinelli near the touchline with both sets of studs showing. He was initially booked by referee Chris Kavanagh, but the decision was checked by Var and a red card was an inevitability. How Raphinha thought there was a case to argue is anybody’s guess, but he talked his way into Kavanagh’s book and almost did enough to convince the referee to show him a second yellow before being calmed down by team-mates. Leeds had lost their heads at that point and Klich was the next player to go into the book, for a foul on Granit Xhaka. Another stupid challenge, this time from Junior Firpo on Bukayo Saka, resulted in Odegaard forcing Meslier into a save from a free-kick on the right edge of the penalty area. Fearful that his team would be reduced to nine or even eight men in the second half, Marsch, who had appeared confused rather than furious in his technical area, replaced Klich with Lewis Bate at half-time. Martinelli’s performance deserved a goal and it was the forward who went close on three occasions before Leeds somehow grabbed themselves a lifeline and stopped the home fans heading for the exits early. Arsenal’s advantage should have been five or six goals and yet it was reduced to one in the 66th minute, when the hosts were caught out by a clever corner routine. Kalvin Phillips’s delivery was nodded on by Firpo and Llorente was unmarked at the back post to convert. Leeds won a last-minute corner for which Marsch ordered Meslier forward. The hosts survived that moment and also were indebted to Aaron Ramsdale for making a stoppage-time save from substitute Rodrigo’s header. It should never have come to that and, despite their advantage, Arsenal proved that they cannot take anything for granted.