As Nicolas Pepe trudged off the pitch after headbutting Ezgjan Alioski, the direction of the match changed. Leeds, who were already dominating affairs, would go on to relentlessly pressure the block of Arsenal defenders, searching for a deserved goal that ultimately never came.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side could not have come much closer to a win; Patrick Bamford, Rodrigo Moreno and Raphinha all hit the woodwork, while Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and Luke Ayling were among those to squander some of the plentiful half chances. A lot has changed since last season’s promotion campaign, but this was a reminder that dominance does not pay off without finishing, a fact we know all too well from the Championship days.
It would be harsh to lay the blame entirely on the Leeds players, though, and Arsenal will walk away wondering how they managed to snatch a point. This may be two points lost rather than one gained, but it was significant that Leeds controlled large spells of the match in reaction to successive 4-1 defeats.
Did the finishing need to be better, or were the Peacocks simply destined to draw? Did the match really fall into Leeds’ favour when the Gunners went down to 10 men? Here are five things we learnt from one of the more nail-biting goalless draws in recent times.
Raphinha is earning his starting berth
A wave of anticipation rippled through the Twitter-verse when Leeds revealed their starting 11; there was a rare change from Marcelo Bielsa, and £18 million deadline day signing Raphinha was finally handed his full Premier League debut.
The Brazilian looked promising after coming on at half time against Crystal Palace, and it was enough for him to start ahead of first team regular Helder Costa. His performance against Arsenal certainly warranted that decision.
Raphinha vs. Arsenal:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) November 22, 2020
90 mins played
23/34 successful passes
8 successful final third passes
6 ball recoveries
4 touches in opp box
2/2 successful crosses
1 woodwork shot
1 chance created
1 tackle won
1/1 successful take-on
Exciting talent. pic.twitter.com/8aWOSqdHXH
Throughout the match, Raphinha looked to create space in the final third and kept Leeds attacks spinning with quick link up play. The 23-year-old was also fearless running at defenders, and posed a goalscoring threat from distance.
It was his positive approach to the match that led to Bernd Leno’s greatest test so far in the 64th minute; Raphinha cut inside on his left foot before finding Dallas with a pinpoint pass, and the Northern Irishman forced a good save from the German goalkeeper.
Six minutes later, the former Rennes winger timed his run well to get onto the end of a great lobbed pass deep into the Arsenal area from Klich. He pulled the ball back well for Ayling, whose first touch let him down and allowed the chance to slip away.
The relentless spell continued as Raphinha lifted a well placed cross into the box, with Bamford rising well but failing to perfect the connection, instead heading wide.
In a match where the hosts felt pressured to force killer passes against a weakened opponent, Raphinha was best placed to forge opportunities for his side, and it seems clear now that a starting 11 without the winger is significantly weaker than one with him included.
Not only does he create space for others and pick out teammates with his impressive range of passing; he also gets himself into the right positions, and was unlucky to not win the game for Leeds after Rodrigo headed a lobbed pass onto him at the near post in the 95th minute, only to see his effort sliced onto the post.
Leeds do not always benefit from a one-man advantage
In a way, Pepe’s sending off made things simpler for Arsenal. Now that they had a one-man disadvantage, they had an excuse to sit back and rely entirely on counter attacks to threaten Illan Meslier’s goal.
With less space to operate in, Leeds found themselves being forced to improvise in the final third, as they were left with fewer opportunities to outnumber the Gunners in attacking positions.
This increased the pressure on the hosts, and themes that had been running through the match did not drop off in their prevalence. Too many lobbed balls into the box were made with little effect, while Leeds players lacked a clinical edge when presented with half chances in and around the Arsenal box.
You won’t see many newly-promoted sides reduce Arsenal to a 34% possession share and just 2 shots on-target. The Attack Momentum chart from @SofaScoreINT is quite something, as were Leeds today. Frustrated but immensely proud. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/HDUFKGXvcE— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) November 22, 2020
Of course, there is the argument that through hitting the woodwork on three occasions in the final 10 minutes of normal time, Leeds were simply unlucky. However, it is clear that their conversion rate was not good enough, and the added pressure of feeling obligated to score against an outnumbered opposition could have added to this issue.
Feeding into resulting issues surrounding missed opportunities and forced passes, the sending off may have played into Arsenal’s hands more than anything, and Leeds could have felt more comfortable taking on 11 players who leave more space to be exploited at the back.
More subtlety is needed in Leeds’ build-up play
As hinted above, Leeds needed to introduce some more variety to their game having benefited from a one-man advantage for over 40 minutes.
Too often, crosses did not find their target, instead flying teasingly out of Leeds attackers’ reach. Bamford was left with little to work from as a result, while most of the hosts’ best opportunities seemed to arise when they played the ball along the ground.
Robin Koch, who may feel like he has a point to prove after being singled out by fans in recent club and international matches, was particularly liable in his attempts to force killer passes from deep.
Leeds were dominating possession for the majority of the match, and often all that was needed was a simple pass paired with some patience as opposed to playing a long ball unlikely to reach its intended target.
This is by no means an attempt to label Koch’s performance a poor one; he completed 89 percent of his 73 passes and registered the joint-most key passes (3) of any player on the pitch.
Among the individual moments of brilliance from the Germany international, he won the ball cleanly and effortlessly from Pepe to bring a swift end to a period of Arsenal dominance in the early stages. After the interval, he brought down a clearance superbly having ventured into Arsenal’s half to ensure Leeds continued to put their opponents under pressure.
However, the fact he completed none of his five attempted long balls shows that simple tends to be better, especially when your side are on top of the game and possess no shortage of goalscoring opportunities.
Kalvin Phillips is indispensable
He was missed against Crystal Palace, and he was certainly missed against Leicester, but Phillips returned from injury earlier than expected to remind everybody why he is one of the latest acquisitions to the England national team.
The 24-year-old topped the charts in multiple categories, completing the most passes of any player (85) with an accuracy of 89.5 percent. Having him back in defensive midfield went a long way in handing Leeds the opportunity to dictate large spells of the match.
Kalvin Phillips vs. Arsenal:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) November 22, 2020
105 touches ( most on pitch)
85 successful passes ( most on pitch)
63 opposition half passes ( most on pitch)
24 successful final third passes (2nd-most on pitch)
11 ball recoveries ( most on pitch)
Back in business. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/vZNp8mIfKg
While Pascal Struijk is capable of distributing the ball well, he is at a stage too early in the process to emulate Phillips’ incredible defensive range as well as his passing abilities. The jump up to the Premier League has certainly not impeded the England international’s ability to dictate the tempo of matches, and he will only get better as he continues to build experience.
At times Leeds are looking for inspiration, Phillips can also be the man to provide just that. With chipped balls into the box not troubling Arsenal’s defence, it was him who provided a clever, low ball for Bamford to take in the box during the second half.
While Rodrigo’s absence in attacking midfield was also noticeable against the likes of Leicester, and any injuries to Raphinha will hurt from this point onwards, the role Phillips undertakes in this Leeds team is vital to the system’s success.
Having been immortalised by the latest Whites mural in the city of Leeds, Phillips is also taking measures to immortalise himself in United folklore. Last night’s performance was another small step forward in cementing his position as a club legend.
Good performances all round
In a match where every single outfield player registered a shot for Leeds, there were a number of impressive individual displays to take away, arguably none more so than Liam Cooper’s.
The club captain boasted the highest passing accuracy on the pitch, having completed over 93 percent of his 87 passes. Of the seven long balls he attempted, five were accurate, while he also won four aerial duels and produced four clearances.
Hope you all enjoyed the game Elliot. You stay strong young man. We are all with you and it was our pleasure to have you walk on the pitch with us. Sending all the love and strength in the world https://t.co/XMEsM1f9aV— Liam Cooper (@LiamCooper__) November 22, 2020
Bar one or two occasions where he gave away a silly free kick, it was a much improved performance from Cooper following some moments to forget against Leicester and Palace before the international break.
If his performance on the pitch was not good enough to earn him man-of-the-match, his gesture of goodwill towards an ill Leeds supporter was certainly enough to land him the ‘human-of-the-day’ award. A professional on and off the pitch, Cooper is a superb role model and captain.
Meslier also deserves plaudits, having snuffed out the few opportunities Arsenal managed to forge for themselves on the break. Bukayo Saka looked almost certain to score when he timed his run to perfection to meet the end of Hector Bellerin’s well placed through ball, but Meslier was quick to react, coming off his line before crawling to ensure the English starlet could not work his shot on target.
The 20-year-old has come a long way since making a memorable debut against the Gunners in January’s FA Cup encounter, and it comes as no surprise that Leeds’ first clean sheet against Arsenal in 13 attempts came with him between the sticks.
Gjanni Alioski's numbers against Arsenal:— Football Macedonia (@MacedonianFoot) November 22, 2020
9⃣0⃣ Minutes Played
0⃣9⃣ Ground Duels Won
0⃣3⃣ Fouls Won
6⃣0⃣ Passes Completed (90%)
0⃣2⃣ Key Passes
0⃣1⃣ Big Chance created
7⃣.7⃣ SofaScore rating.
Outstanding all round display. pic.twitter.com/juo4HJz96Q
Elsewhere, Klich proved once again to be a focal point in Leeds’ attack, Dallas reaffirmed himself as the club’s utility man by filling in at multiple positions and substitutes Rodrigo and Ian Poveda both had a positive impact. However, the final shoutout has to go to Alioski.
Having helped make history with North Macedonia during the international break, the 28-year-old put in a superb shift against Arsenal, completing six tackles, three interceptions and two clearances, while boasting a passing accuracy of 89.6 percent.
Alioski you beautiful shithouse, phenomenal work #lufc— Right In The Gary Kellys (@RITGK) November 22, 2020
Despite being more of a rotational option in recent seasons for Leeds, Alioski continues to prove his worth, having linked up superbly down the left flank with Jack Harrison once again.
Overall, this was an extremely promising response to consecutive defeats, and with the likes of Phillips and Rodrigo returning to the first team and Raphinha slowly bedding into the side, Leeds could not hope to be in better shape heading into two difficult fixtures against Everton and Chelsea.
Oh, and the fury from Arsenal fans as a result of Alioski’s antics also made for an enjoyable evening. The Premier League may never adapt to Leeds’ shithousery.
Who was your man-of-the-match in the goalless draw against Arsenal?
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