It would be unfair to reduce this match to a single flashpoint given that the absence of goals says nothing of an absorbing, often breathless contest that deserved far better. Leeds should have deepened Arsenal’s anxieties but their annoyance at not doing so can be explained by a skirmish that tipped the scales firmly in their favour.
Nicolas Pépé and Ezgjan Alioski had been engaged in a low-key running battle during the early stages of the second half and, after a bout of niggling outside the Leeds penalty area with the ball several yards away, the home left-back tumbled to the floor clutching his face. It took a VAR check to apprise Anthony Taylor that Pépé had pushed his forehead into that of his adversary, the motion clear enough to be classed as violent conduct even if Alioski’s reaction was almost as reprehensible.
Nobody would say Pépé had committed an act of brutality but it was as idiotic a manoeuvre as they come, his failure to box clever and rise above any antagonism leaving his teammates exposed against opponents who had already showed they could cut through with scalpel-like precision.
“Very clear, it’s unacceptable,” said Mikel Arteta of Pépé’s indiscretion, confirming he had informed his player as much. “We knew the intensity, aggression and how alive they are in every situation and you have to deal with that.” Arteta had already spent an unwelcome chunk of the past week dealing with disciplinary infractions involving David Luiz, Dani Ceballos and Willian.
This one must have felt particularly exasperating given he had afforded Pépé a relatively rare top-flight start, shifting Willian to the left and allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an eagerly awaited run at centre-forward. Pépé glanced the crossbar with a wayward first-half cross but ultimately threw Arteta’s trust back at him, adding to the frustrations the manager has already voiced about such a mercurial player who is yet to plug fully into his demands.
At least the rest of his players dug in and toiled admirably, clinging on for a point and creating a late chance to take all three when the substitute Bukayo Saka tried to round Illan Meslier but was thwarted by a game-saving block. But that would have left Leeds, who took 25 of the game’s 34 shots, feeling utterly bereft. Their disappointment at not winning was clear enough: had their dazzling approach work and near-unplayable overloads down the flanks been finished off just once they would have gained the result they merited.
“The game had two moments,” Marcelo Bielsa said. “The first hour [sic], where we played 11 against 11, dominated the game and didn’t allow the opponent to react, and the final half-hour where the dominance was even more clear and offensively we did enough to deserve to establish a lead.”
When Alioski was not on the wind-up he was behind much of Leeds’ best work, forming left-sided dovetails with Jack Harrison that Arsenal could not handle. A 12th-minute cutback should possibly have brought better reward than Patrick Bamford’s jab into the arms of Bernd Leno, but there were plenty more openings where that came from.
Before the interval Leno had made a far better save from Bamford, repelling his volley one-handed after an error from Gabriel had teed up the chance, and watched as Stuart Dallas dragged an opportunity wide. Mateusz Klich found himself on the end of a beautiful move as half-time neared but skied his shot; Leeds could feel disappointed by that point but bigger agonies were to come.
Arsenal lost Willian to injury at half-time and Pépé’s indiscretion skewed them further. “It’s the first time I’ve heard it,” said Bielsa of suggestions Alioski has a penchant for needle. “That is not to say you are not right. He perhaps uses these resources and I hadn’t noticed.”
Leeds gathered theirs for a whirlwind of a final half-hour. Leno pawed away spectacularly from Dallas and was relieved when Luke Ayling miscontrolled in front of goal. Then, remarkably, Bielsa’s team struck the woodwork three times in the final 10 minutes. Rodrigo, whose arrival from the bench turned their attacking intensity up another notch, cut inside and bent a left-footed effort on to the top of the bar before Bamford came even closer, heading against the post. Raphinha struck the outside of the same upright as the seconds ticked down and, somehow, Arsenal’s stoicism earned some reward.
In those circumstances it was perhaps not the night for handwringing about the fact that 476 minutes have now passed since Arsenal scored a Premier League goal from open play. The identity of that goalscorer was, perhaps predictably, Pépé but he will have to wait at least three games before offering a similar contribution. “I really liked the personality of the team when Pépé let the team down,” Arteta said, cuttingly. At some point it needs to translate into more than a damage limitation act.