Eddie Nketiah floors Leeds to strengthen Arsenal’s grip on fourth
Was this evidence that Arsenal will breeze across the finishing line and secure what, given the gloom around their prospects in August, would be a sensational return to Champions League football? Or was it fresh proof that they will make those who hold them dear chew anxiously until the bitter end, nerves hanging by a thread until the dying moments of the final day?
On Thursday night we may find out, given that three points at Spurs, of all places, will confirm their top-four spot. If Mikel Arteta’s side play as they did in the first half here, cutting through Leeds relentlessly and doing their performance a disservice by failing to score more than two, those doubts could well be settled beyond anyone’s expectations.
Arsenal 2-1 Leeds United: Premier League – as it happened
Turn in the kind of showing they managed in the final 25 minutes, when they somehow let an abject 10-man opposition back into the game and could even have let it all slide in added time, and the rollercoaster ride their manager so fears will become stomach-churning.
“We’re going to go for that match with the same enthusiasm we always do, but knowing this can be a defining moment,” Arteta said of the meeting with Spurs, who are four points behind them with three to play. “That can be another layer of motivation for us to really go for it.”
Arsenal certainly went for Leeds, although they were aided by one of the most shambolic openings any top-flight side has produced this season. When Eddie Nketiah scored his second goal in the 10th minute there appeared little doubt about the outcome; a quarter of an hour later the hapless Luke Ayling had celebrated his 500th career appearance by scything into Gabriel Martinelli, thus ending both his afternoon and campaign.
So the fact they were breathing a sigh of relief in the final minute of injury time, when Rodrigo could not quite flick a header beyond Aaron Ramsdale to equalise, was a mystery. Their football can be crisp, intense and thrilling but Arsenal rarely fail to leave the door open at least a crack.
“The way we started, we were electric,” Arteta said. Nketiah’s opener was testament to their tempo, which bizarrely appeared to catch Leeds by surprise. Ayling made one of his few successful contributions in passing back to Illan Meslier, but the keeper took a touch and let the ball run across his body when the situation called for safety first. Nketiah, who had made up a prodigious amount of ground, steamed in and swiped it into the net before Meslier could set himself to clear.
Meslier had already flapped at one free-kick and his jitters were of a piece with everything about Leeds’ display. They had got in Manchester City’s faces eight days previously but here they stood off and let Arsenal play. When the irrepressible Martinelli left Ayling chasing shadows down the left, keeping control of the ball well before cutting back, an unmarked Nketiah was stationed to clip in his second. A player who had been handed crumbs all season until last month now has four in four; whether that compels him and Arsenal to agree a new contract remains to be seen but his sharpness in the box has proved decisive at a crucial time.
“He has been very consistent with his performances, and how little he is giving away,” Arteta said of the 22-year-old’s future intentions. “Let him enjoy the moment because he completely deserves it and things will happen naturally.”
Nature continued to take its course as Martinelli roasted Ayling twice more. Eventually, after the Brazilian kept a raking pass in near the byline, Ayling cracked and ploughed through his tormentor, and, although the ball came with him, his force was clearly excessive. Christopher Kavanagh initially showed a yellow card; it did not take the most pedantic of VAR reviews to turn it red, given the offender had leapt in with two feet.
Already depleted, Leeds now miss a vital component for their own decisive series of matches. They are in the relegation zone and face Chelsea next: it is a recipe for major trouble. “If we start playing blame games with players, we’re screwed,” Jesse Marsch said. In fairness there would have been plenty to go round. “We’ve got to stick together and fight for points, it’s not time to point the finger.”
Leeds just about staggered to the interval without further damage and, even though Martinelli went close three times, the margin remained at two with 24 minutes left. Then Diego Llorente converted a corner at the far post with their first goal attempt. Now the Emirates, almost somnolent in the late-afternoon sun, felt angsty and the outcome remained in doubt when Martin Ødegaard shot wide. Nicolas Pépé opted not to locate an open goal after Meslier went up for a corner and, at the end, the roars were of relief that everything remains squarely in Arsenal’s slippery hands.
Arsenal took a huge step towards securing Champions League football next season as they saw off an ill-disciplined Leeds United, with the 10-man visitors dropping into the Premier League relegation zone.
It was a fourth successive win for Mikel Arteta’s side and one that puts them firmly in the driving seat for a top-four spot before Thursday’s north London derby at Tottenham.
But Leeds’ early capitulation was entirely of their own making, with goalkeeper Illan Meslier gifting the hosts an opener before captain Luke Ayling was sent off for a needless lunge on Gabriel Martinelli.
Eddie Nketiah pounced on Meslier’s loose touch to open the scoring and then finished a swift move to double the Gunners’ lead before Ayling’s rash challenge left Leeds a man down for more than an hour.
The Elland Road outfit did not have an effort on goal until Diego Llorente headed past Aaron Ramsdale in the 66th minute to tee up more of a nervy finish than anyone inside Emirates Stadium would have anticipated.
Leeds applied some late pressure, sending Meslier up for set-pieces, but the fourth-placed hosts were never seriously in danger of losing their lead and now hold a four-point lead over Tottenham in fifth.
Defeat for Leeds, coupled with Everton’s win at Leicester, means Jesse Marsch’s side slip into the bottom three with three games remaining.
With Spurs drawing at Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal knew if they could successfully navigate this potential stumbling block they would head into one of the most crucial north London derbies in recent years on Thursday with a commanding lead over their rivals.
The hosts were handed the ideal start when Meslier took a loose touch from Ayling’s pass and allowed Nketiah to pounce for the opener - a reward for both his persistent pressing and recent performances leading the Arsenal line.
The 22-year-old’s forward’s future is yet to be determined, with his contract expiring in the summer, but Nketiah has continued to do his bit to make sure Arsenal are playing in Europe’s elite competition next term, and doubled the hosts’ lead with a well-taken second from Martinelli’s pass in the 10th minute.
That was the forward’s ninth goal this season, although five of those have come in the Carabao Cup, where he was used most frequently before earning a first Premier League start of the season last month and establishing his place in Arteta’s first XI.
Now the soon-to-be-free-agent is spearheading a young and exciting Arsenal forward line alongside Bukayo Saka and Martinelli, who was on the end of a foolish tackle from Ayling that resulted in the defender being dismissed after 27 minutes.
Arsenal’s flowing attack toyed with the visitors as Martin Odegaard’s free-kick found its way onto the bar and Martinelli poked a half-volley over, only for the Gunners to be caught out from Leeds’ first corner.
It made things slightly less comfortable than Arteta will have hoped for but his side got the vital win they needed before a trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where victory will confirm Arsenal’s return to the Champions League for the first time since 2016-17.