Leeds United haunted by familiar spectre at the feast - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Arsenal defeat

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It would not have been a Leeds United birthday party without drama befitting their storied 103 years of existence.

Falling as it did on a day when they took on potential title challengers Arsenal there was every chance that the fun would be spoiled and that was certainly the expectation prior to kick-off. Eight wins from nine and an ominous, almost inevitable front line, gave the Gunners the appearance of the spectre at the feast, against a Leeds side winless in five and struggling to find rhythm or consistency.

As it turned out, Arsenal did crash the party and they did win, but they didn't deserve to. And how much credit you give to Jesse Marsch and Leeds for that fact will be hotly debated between the glass half fulls and their half empty counterparts.

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Battering the division's leaders for such long spells in the second half, having gone down a goal despite a largely solid first half, was unexpected but welcome. They pressed, fought, created and entertained sufficiently to walk off the pitch winners, by a margin, to an ovation. They just didn't score. Their own finishing, rather than Mikel Arteta’s elite operators, proved the spectre.

The biggest question begged by the performance, which owed much to not only their tigerish defence but some clever, incisive football, was perhaps where has it been? Had they played like this against Everton, Aston Villa - prior to the red card - and Crystal Palace then the upcoming midweek trip to Leicester City would not be taking on such a magnitude.

It also feels fair to wonder whether the quality of opposition has played some part in Leeds' best two performances so far this season. The side that beat Chelsea so handily rocked up again, albeit without their finishing boots, just as the missing posters were starting to go up around LS11. Arsenal came to win and they came to play, which perhaps lent itself to Marsch's plan to force and then profit from errors in the opposition half.

Leeds have looked well capable of doing the first part, at least, against two 'big six' clubs now, but the grim reality in the top flight is that beating the best of the rest is what is required to survive. They've got to do both parts, well, against teams who might show no serious desire to play out or will, as Palace did, simply take steps to counteract Marsch's plan.

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If his intention was to hit Arsenal with chaos, the American was given a helping hand by the bizarre sight of referee Chris Kavanagh taking the teams off after 69 seconds after a power surge wiped out the officials' headsets and Premier League systems. According to Marsch the 30-minute break that ensued briefly gave rise to the possibility of the game going ahead without VAR, a prospect made all the more fascinating given the game's subsequent and significant incidents.

IMPROVED PERFORMANCE - Jesse Marsch's Leeds United created enough chances to beat Arsenal by a margin but failed to take any of them, including a penalty. Pic: GettyIMPROVED PERFORMANCE - Jesse Marsch's Leeds United created enough chances to beat Arsenal by a margin but failed to take any of them, including a penalty. Pic: Getty
IMPROVED PERFORMANCE - Jesse Marsch's Leeds United created enough chances to beat Arsenal by a margin but failed to take any of them, including a penalty. Pic: Getty

Leeds were out of the blocks quickly, at the second attempt, Luis Sinisterra sending a shot just wide from a similar range to his previous goals. He returned to the team after suspension, Patrick Bamford dropping out, and with Jack Harrison as the 10, Rodrigo set out to show why he deserved the nod up top. He was bright, lively and involved in promising moments early on.

For a player who has never found consistency at Leeds, the last thing he needed was to self sabotage his and his team-mate's efforts with a faulty switch that put Pascal Struijk under pressure and Arsenal on the front foot. Martin Ødegaard got on the ball, slid it through to Bukayo Saka and he made it 1-0. Tyler Adams' bewildered look in the direction of his centre-forward, open palms failing to grasp an understanding of the pass, said it all.

When Rodrigo then killed an attack with a ponderous release of the ball that rendered Rasmus Kristensen offside, Marsch sent Bamford out to warm up. The half-time switch appeared to pay instant dividends, Bamford finding the net before Kavanagh pulled the plug on the celebrations, spotting a foul on Gabriel.

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But Leeds and Bamford were undeterred, the striker intercepting a William Saliba pass to get in on goal only to shoot straight at Aaron Ramsdale. His next big opportunity didn't even yield a shot but the energy had been switched back on at Elland Road and it flowed between the team and the fans.

A penalty, awarded after Kavanagh visited his now functioning monitor, had the very air crackling with anticipation, which Arsenal's barely-concealed attempts to delay only served to increase. Bamford's nerve, though, did not hold up and his shot bolted wide.

Again, Leeds refused to let the lights go out. Sinisterra missed a chance, Bamford ran through the middle and ignored a tug on his shirt but was denied by Ramsdale once more, Brenden Aaronson saw one saved and Crysencio Summerville scooped over the top.

Time and hope dwindled, before flickering back to life with a red card for Gabriel, for kicking out at Bamford, and a second penalty, only for VAR to bring Leeds back to earth. Kavanagh swapped the red for a yellow, Arsenal took a free-kick and eventually turned out the lights on the result.

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What felt so cruel was the lack of reward for performances like that of Struijk, still a makeshift full-back in a league full of incredible wingers, and others who played so well. Harrison was creative throughout, Sinisterra was dangerous and Aaronson probed, poked and pestered Arsenal to within inches of real damage.

Meslier becoming a spectator whose most noteworthy second half involvement came as an attacker for a late corner at the opposite end, is testament to the improvement in what Marsch was able to elicit from his side. That much was recognised by the applause from a season-high crowd of 36,700 at Elland Road at full-time, with Bamford’s name ringing out in a moment of sympathetic support.

It was thrilling, it was better, but in the Premier League you make your own fun and there will be, you would think, a chance of some later this week. Leeds United at least have a spark, but they have to turn it on again at Leicester.

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