LONDON — Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Leeds United was an advertisement for the precocious and precarious nature of Arsenal’s youth. The Gunners took another major step towards Champions League qualification with a vital victory, initially the product of their drive and efforts to capitalize on a dreadful first half from their opponents before giving way to a unnecessarily nervous final in which they almost blew a two-goal lead against 10 men.
The catalyst for Arsenal’s renaissance this season has come from a group of young players who have seized the opportunity to try to redefine modern Arsenal: Bukayo Saka is the poster child, but Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Aaron Ramsdale are among those who contributed this term beyond initial expectations. Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli have joined the party in recent weeks, particularly the former, who scored both goals here and continues to build his case for Arsenal to break the deadlock over his contract situation, with his current deal set to expire in a few weeks. .
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Still, it’s a time of the season where talent needs to be temperamentally aligned with prize money in sight.
Leeds improved after half-time – they could hardly have been worse – but what should have been a comfortable ride in the early May sunshine turned into a tense final after Diego Llorente converted a routine smart set-piece in the 66th minute to halve the deficit. Substitute Nicolas Pepe failed to raise his head to see an open goal with goalkeeper Illan Meslier for a corner in a frenetic denouement, a moment that served as a metaphor for the lack of game management that almost cost them dearly.
Nonetheless, they crossed the line with Mohamed Elneny a particularly prominent presence in the final 20 minutes, limiting Leeds on the counterattack and allowing Arsenal to play as much of the game as possible in the opposition half.
There will likely be nervous moments ahead. They go into Thursday’s North London derby at Tottenham Hotspur knowing victory would secure a top-four berth. Still, defeat would leave them a point clear, and with Spurs facing Burnley a day before Arsenal travel to Newcastle United, the Gunners could start at Tyneside in fifth place.
These are the stakes at this stage of the season.
“When you look at other games, you see a lot of [handling nerves] because now is the decisive moment when a goal can change a whole season and it plays in the back of the mind,” Mikel Arteta said after the game. “But I didn’t see any of that in the start of the game.
“In many phases we did well, but we had to score the third goal and we had the chances to do so. Then the accident happened when we conceded a goal from a set piece and then he had to deal with some nerves.”
It’s hard to overstate how bad Leeds were in the first 45 minutes.
They bagged Nketiah’s opening goal as Meslier took a laborious touch to handle Luke Ayling’s back pass. Nketiah shut it down quickly – in a way Alexandre Lacazette probably wouldn’t – to tackle and score in one motion inside the penalty area. It was just the start of a remarkable afternoon for Ayling, his 500th career appearance, as he received a scorching time from Martinelli, who passed him to lie down a second as Nketiah , unmarked from 12 yards, brought home a second inside 10 minutes.
Leeds were chaotic and Ayling added to their misery by launching a reckless and silly challenge on Martinelli on both feet. Inexplicably, referee Chris Kavanagh responded with a yellow card but VAR John Brooks suggested he review the incident and the decision was properly upgraded to a red card.
Ayling is likely to receive a three-game ban and his season could therefore be over. Raphinha could have easily followed him as he furiously protested the decision, but even though he stayed on the pitch, Leeds finished the half with more red cards (one) than shots (zero).
“We dug ourselves a huge hole and made a tough job a lot harder,” said Leeds boss Jesse Marsch, mastering the art of understatement. They nearly snatched a point in stoppage time when Junior Firpo headed a long free-kick forward, but Rodrigo could only cast a tame glance straight at Ramsdale.
Arsenal have hung on and head into Thursday’s derby knowing that all the pressure is on Spurs in the race to secure fourth place. They should therefore be able to play with a greater sense of freedom. Younger players tend to be able to do this, but they will also need to keep their cool.