LONDON — Sunday’s 2-1 win over Leeds United was an advert for both the precocious and precarious nature of Arsenal‘s youth. The Gunners took another important step towards Champions League qualification with a vital victory, initially the product of their vibrancy and endeavour in capitalising on an appalling first half from their opponents before giving way to a needlessly nervy finale in which they almost blew a two-goal lead against 10 men.
The catalyst for Arsenal’s revival this season has come from a cluster of young players seizing their opportunity to try to redefine modern-day Arsenal: Bukayo Saka is the poster boy, but Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe and Aaron Ramsdale are among those who’ve 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 enhance his case for Arsenal to break the impasse over his contract situation with his present deal set to expire in a matter of weeks.
Yet this is a time of the season when talent must be aligned to temperament with the prizes in sight.
Leeds improved after half-time — they could barely have been any worse — but what should have been a comfortable stroll in the early May sunshine turned into a tense finale after Diego Llorente converted a clever 66th-minute set-piece routine to halve the deficit. Substitute Nicolas Pepe failed to get his head up to see an open goal with goalkeeper Illan Meslier up for a corner in a frantic denouement, a moment which served as a metaphor for the lack of game management that almost cost them dearly.
Nevertheless, they got themselves over the line with Mohamed Elneny a particularly important presence in the final 20 minutes, restricting Leeds on the counterattack and enabling Arsenal to play as much of the game in the opposition half as possible.
There are likely to be nervous moments ahead. They go into Thursday’s north London derby at Tottenham Hotspur knowing victory would secure a top-four finish. Yet defeat would leave them a point ahead, and with Spurs facing Burnley a day before Arsenal go to Newcastle United, the Gunners could kick off on Tyneside in fifth place.
These are the stakes at this point in the season.
“When you look at the other games, you see a lot of [handling nerves] because now is the defining moment when a goal can change a whole season and that plays on the back of the mind,” Mikel Arteta said after the match. “But I didn’t see any of that at the start of the game.
“For a lot of phases we did well but we needed to score the third goal and we had the chances to do that. Then the accident happened when we conceded a set-piece goal and then some nerves had to be handled.”
It is difficult to overstate how bad Leeds were in the opening 45 minutes.
They gift-wrapped the opening goal for Nketiah as Meslier took a laboured touch in dealing with Luke Ayling’s back-pass. Nketiah closed him down quickly — in a manner Alexandre Lacazette probably would not have done — to tackle and score in one motion inside the six-yard box. This was just the beginning of a remarkable afternoon for Ayling, his 500th career appearance, as he was given a torrid time by Martinelli, who skipped past him to lay on a second as Nketiah, unmarked 12 yards out, swept home a second inside 10 minutes.
Leeds were shambolic and Ayling compounded their misery by launching himself two-footed into a reckless and idiotic challenge on Martinelli. Inexplicably, referee Chris Kavanagh responded with a yellow card but VAR John Brooks suggested he look at the incident again and the decision was correctly upgraded to a red card.
Ayling is likely to receive a three-game ban and therefore his season could be over. Raphinha could easily have followed him as he furiously protested the decision, but even though he stayed on the pitch, Leeds ended the half with more red cards (one) than shots (zero).
“We dug ourselves a massive hole and made a difficult task much more difficult,” said Leeds boss Jesse Marsch, mastering the art of understatement. They almost snatched a point in stoppage-time when Junior Firpo headed a long free kick forward, but Rodrigo could only glance a tame header straight at Ramsdale.
Arsenal hung on and head into Thursday’s derby knowing the pressure is all on Spurs in the race to secure fourth spot. They should therefore be able to play with a greater sense of freedom. Young players tend to be able to do that, but they will also need to hold their nerve, too.