Notes on Arsenal 2–1 Leeds: Pressuronomics
Okay, so pressuronomics isn’t a word. I’m not even sure it’s possible to accurately enunciate. Onomatopoetically speaking, though, the weird-sounding phrase perfectly sums up Arsenal’s desperate, jittery 2–1 home win over relegation-bound Leeds United on Sunday.
The result puts fourth place firmly in Arsenal’s sights ahead of the north London derby. As for the performance…
It was a lesson in the fine art of creating pressure. Not just pressure on the opponent, but pressure of the self-inflicted kind.
Arsenal got the first part of the formula right with a relentless high press that forced Leeds into one calamity after another. The first of those errors allowed in-form Eddie Nektiah to capitalise.
Fast Eddie chased down Leeds goalkeeper Ilan Meslier, who has always been a disasterclass waiting to happen, and played the ball into the net. It’s far from the first goal like this Nketiah has scored, and that’s no coincidence from a player who has made chasing and harrying key facets of his game.
In this instance, Nketiah was leading a four-man press from the front. Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka had Leeds’ full-backs hemmed in, while Martin Odegaard occupied the centre-backs, leaving Nketiah to zero in on hapless Meslier.
This ferociously foraging foursome stayed on the Leeds defence all day. It meant whenever Arsenal won the ball in midfield, all it took was a quick pass out and the home side was operating in the business end of the final third.
Most of those passes out went Martinelli’s way. He skinned the right side of Leeds’ backline at will, notably teeing up Nketiah for a tap-in and two-goal lead after just 10 minutes.
For all the goals he forces through sheer hustle, Nketiah also binges on tap-ins. Again, it’s no coincidence for a player who is an absolute demon in the box.
His swift brace cemented how Nketiah has made the most of his overdue ascension into the first XI:
Mikel Arteta took too long to give Nketiah his chance this season, but not for the first time in his managerial career, The Process King has been saved by a late act of desperation.
And by another of the leftovers he was lucky enough to inherit from Arsene Wenger.
To his credit, Arteta has sought to implement a tactical blueprint that’s a potent mix of Wenger and Pep Guardiola. It’s a lofty ambition, but you can see shades of Pep’s way in how Arsenal press rabidly and rapidly from the front.
You can also see something of Wenger’s favoured 4–4–2(ish) structure in how high up the pitch Odegaard plays. He’s often been alongside the central striker, be it Nketiah or Alexandre Laczaette, when off the ball this season.
With the wingers hugging both touchlines, Arteta’s side is almost in a 4–2–4 shape out of possession. A lot of it is tactical semantics, but Arteta played for Wenger, who never strayed too far from the flexibility offered by football’s most famous formation.
The ideas behind these tactics are only possible when you have young and hungry players willing (and not to mention able) to run for a whole game. Arteta has those, particularly in the form of Nketiah and Martinelli, who stayed busy all day against Leeds:
The key statistic for both players was the duels won. Most of those 14 skirmishes were fought and won in or around the Leeds box. Pressure.
Martinelli was enough of a nuisance for Luke Ayling, one of the few Arsenal youth products unable to impress Wenger, to get red-carded for a wild, two-footed lunge. That referee Chris Kavanagh initially deemed the challenge only worthy of a yellow was truly scary.
VAR thankfully corrected Kavanagh, but it’s almost as if Abou Diaby, Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey never happened…
Arteta’s young charges pressured Leeds into the wrong kind of aggression, but the flip-side of trusting youths is their own erratic reactions to pressure. In this case, the pressure of having UEFA Champions League qualification in their grasp.
Arsenal were coasting at 2–0 up against 10 men, but what should have been calm control gave way to sloppiness, in a manner reminiscent of the most trying seasons of Wenger’s tenure. Today’s version of a near collapse took the form of conceding from a set piece when Diego Llorente hammered in at the back post.
What followed was a prolonged exercise in stress management rather than savvy gamesmanship. Martinelli and the typically elegant Odegaard (magician) went close to netting the clinching third, but without it, Arsenal were forced to weather a late and uncharacteristic aerial bombardment from Leeds.
The away side’s route-one approach should’ve yielded dividends in stoppage time, but Rodrigo’s bizarrely tame flicked back header nestled comfortably in Aaron Ramsdale’s grasp. Make no mistake, a MAJOR let-off.
Wins by hook or crook are Arsenal’s currency at the moment, but this should also be a vital teaching moment for Arteta to use with his youngsters. Arsenal invited pressure when the object was to do anything but, something disciplined teams rarely risk.
Arteta and his freshly minted new contract (more on that when my blood stops boiling) needs to preach better habits to his players. Of course, it’s not easy for somebody still so fallow in managerial terms to talk up the virtues of experience.
However he does it, Arteta has to find a way to settle the nerves because Arsenal will need to show some coolness under fire against Antonio Conte’s fired-up troops.
Originally published at http://arsenalnotes49.wordpress.com on May 9, 2022.