Leeds United surprise factor delaying the inevitable - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Arsenal beating

The day at Arsenal began with a surprise but it couldn't end with one, Leeds United falling to a defeat whose inevitability was only ever on hold.
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A 4-1 scoreline told the tale of a quality deficit between the two sides, chances going begging at one end and going in the net with ruthless efficiency at the other. The Gunners, albeit frustrated by Leeds' plan for the first 35 minutes, made few mistakes and punished ruthlessly those Leeds were guilty of and eventually cantered to victory, taking another step towards the Premier League title.

Mikel Arteta's side's eight-point gap at the top of the table is one reason why Leeds should prepare for Tuesday night's clash against relegation rivals Nottingham Forest with a relatively clear head. They must do so. Elland Road, against Forest, is must-win territory. The Emirates is not where Leeds find their fight this season and anything they could take from this game was going to be a bonus, a highly surprising bonus. Arsenal are a superb side, in imperious form, especially at home where Everton, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace all conceded three or four times apiece in March.

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That was chief in Gracia's thinking as he picked a team and set up a formation to compete with Arteta and the Gunners. However thorough the title-chasing manager was in his preparation and analysis, he could never have predicted the line-up he would face.

Pascal Struijk over Liam Cooper in the absence of Max Wober represented the least eyebrow raising decision, which said much about the confusion sparked by Gracia's XI. Cooper's ability, or otherwise, to play three 90 minute games in the space of a week was likely behind that one. And Weston McKennie dropping out was no huge shock, not when he had played through flu for his country in midweek and then had to travel back. But Rasmus Kristensen joining fellow right-back Luke Ayling in the line-up, Luis Sinisterra starting despite not being in his 'best condition' and Patrick Bamford sitting on the bench were all big, unexpected calls.

Even though it transpired that Gracia had a very specific plan in mind, one that placed Kristensen – a player who has struggled with passing all season but brings mobility – in the centre of midfield and sought to pack the middle, while using the pace of Sinisterra, Crysencio Summerville and Brenden Aaronson up top, it was clearly a team picked with at least half an eye on Forest.

If Arsenal paid any attention to Leeds' warm-up, which has changed under the new regime to include attacking patterns of play, then they will have known by 3pm where Kristensen would be playing and how the Whites would be setting up. And yet they could still have gone behind inside 10 seconds, Kristensen's snapshot testing Aaron Ramsdale after Leeds turned their first high ball forward into a fairly contested scrap in the final third.

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Although Arsenal came close themselves with Gabriel Jesus' off-target header, that chance took 12 minutes to arrive.

TORRID TIME - Luke Ayling of Leeds United endured one of the most difficult outings of the season at his former club Arsenal in a 4-1 defeat. Pic: GettyTORRID TIME - Luke Ayling of Leeds United endured one of the most difficult outings of the season at his former club Arsenal in a 4-1 defeat. Pic: Getty
TORRID TIME - Luke Ayling of Leeds United endured one of the most difficult outings of the season at his former club Arsenal in a 4-1 defeat. Pic: Getty

Leeds had set out to make it ugly and largely succeeded for 35 minutes. They packed central areas, forcing Arsenal wide and then pushing them back inside into the traffic. They rarely challenged for aerial balls in the Arsenal half, instead waiting to pounce on the second ball with numbers.

When the moment permitted they were patient in possession and after posing a little threat on the break, put together their best spell with some sustained possession. A Summerville one-two with Roca led to a low shot that was saved. Belief grew. Jack Harrison brought another stop from Ramsdale. The plan was working.

Then came the sucker punch, Kristensen first undone by Jesus before Ayling was too, the full-back going to ground and catching the forward's knee with his boot. It wasn't enough contact to send him to ground but it was just enough to prevent VAR from changing referee Darren England's mind. Jesus rolled the spot-kick down the middle, Arsenal were 1-0 up and Leeds were left to ask what now?

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The sight of Meslier, out of his area to make an unconvincing clearance straight to Gabriel Martinelli, suggested that the dam was creaking. Ayling got there just in time to just about clear Martinelli's goalbound effort to save Meslier from the fate he suffered at Jonny's hands at Molineux.

But at half-time Leeds were still in the game and with a disciplined start to the second half could remain in it and hope to get a chance and nick something. That was Gracia's message in the dressing room as he stuck with the starting XI and told them to stick with the plan.

Two minutes after the restart it went out the window. Martinelli got past Ayling with too much ease and played a ball to the back post where Harrison was sleeping, Ben White stealing in to crash home off the crossbar.

It took eight further minutes for the third to arrive and with it the three points for Arsenal. Jesus fired the ball into the feet of Leandro Trossard, he got around Robin Koch and squared for Jesus to arrive and knock home his second. As good as Arsenal were in the final third, the defending helped a team who really need no help.

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The plan then became damage limitation and Gracia's substitutions as the half wore on suggested he now had one eye fully on Forest.

Leeds had two chances to pull one back before they eventually did, Aaronson denied by Ramsdale and Kristensen by his own high and wild finish, but the makeshift midfielder made amends with a deflected sidefoot effort from just outside the box on 76 minutes.

Previously it would have been very Arsenal for them to wobble and potentially crumble, but this team looks like a different animal and it was no surprise that even as nerves settled around The Emirates, the next goal went in the Leeds net.

Granit Xhaka popped up on the edge of the box, indicated to Martin Odegaard that he wanted a high cross and when it came he was quicker off the mark than Ayling, running in to head past Meslier for a comprehensive scoreline. It might have slightly flattered the hosts but only ever so slightly and it was always a distinct possibility. That Leeds delayed the inevitable as long as they did was at least one positive to take from it.

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"They were scoring in the last three, four games at the Emirates, scoring three or four goals - it's something they usually do," said Gracia. So with no time to complain, and no point in dwelling, he's moving on to Tuesday. This lost battle and any feelings associated with it should be left in London. The war is still to be won. The real fight begins in earnest on home soil this week.