Leeds vs Arsenal: How will Arsenal overcome Bielsa's relentless machine?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
The last time Arsenal travelled to Elland Road to take on Leeds United, the Gunners were flying high at the top of the Premier League, unbeaten in their opening 10 games and on their way to producing the greatest Premier League season ever produced, by going unbeaten throughout the entirety of the campaign. On that particular wet afternoon in West Yorkshire, Arsene Wenger's men steamrolled Peter Reid's boys 4-1, with a brace from Thierry Henry sending them 6 points clear of the chasing pack. 17 years later, and things feel very, very different.
The last time this current Arsenal side played a football match, they were steamrolled by a side that escaped relegation by a single point just a few months ago, battered 3-0 at home to Aston Villa, and left firmly in mid-table after 8 games. The stark contrast between the lead ups to both these games serving as a timely reminder of how far the club has declined in this period. A sleeping giant.
To caveat this doom and gloom, Mikel Arteta has now had two weeks to reassess, reevaluate and hopefully develop a plan to resolve all the issues we're facing. Looking at how he's responded to similar moments of impending crises' in his short tenure thus far, and positivity can be summoned amongst the Arsenal faithful. After his first major hiccup in football management against Olympiacos in February, he made minor tweaks to his system that saw him win his next 2 games- conceding no goals in the process- before lockdown. Post lockdown, after the disastrous trips to Manchester City and Brighton, he switched to the infamous back three which saw him win his next four. After July's North London Derby defeat, he went onto beat Manchester City and Chelsea and win the FA Cup. Let's see what he does to impact the seemingly declining performances and results of our current team.
Don't expect him to completely rip up his plans- and so he shouldn't. There are things about the current system that do actually work. Aside from a 20 minute collapse in the Villa game, we are far more defensively secure than we have been for a very long time. We don't concede many clear cut chances, and thus don't concede many goals. Completely disregarding the structural elements of this team that enable this resilience could undo a lot of the good work it has done defensively. It's not about completely changing the entirety of the system. It's about building on it and developing it, then finding the correct balance between defence and offence.
What can be said about this Arsenal side and it's creative deficiencies is that the rigid structure somewhat hinders the creative freedom players possess within it. They're so confined to the zones Arteta wants them to occupy that it limits fluidity and movement amongst forward players. Liberating certain personnel a bit may mean we're more able to create goal scoring opportunities more frequently. Just a thought, Mikel.
Having spoken about these issues, we're unlikely to face them in the more conventional sense in this particular game. Our problems have come in breaking down sides that sit in low compact blocks, and that is something Marcelo Bielsa will certainly not implement. His Leeds side play a very expansive game, which involves intense and high pressing, along with quick and productive use of the ball when winning it back. This may actually favour Arsenal, who possess a lot of players who have the potential to thrive in transition. The likes of Joe Willock, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are very effective at exploiting space when it's presented to them. Bielsa's Leeds will present Arsenal space, as long as we're able to beat the press, which is something positive we have become accustomed to in the Arteta era. We must focus on exploiting this if we're to get anything from this game.
On the other side of this is the pivot we're likely to have to put out in Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka. With Mohamed Elneny testing positive for coronavirus and Thomas Partey out injured, Arteta will be forced to revert to the pivot that was exceptional in Project Restart. Part of what made the pair so good together was that we ourselves sat in a low block at times, reducing the space the pair had to cover, and thus hiding their mobility issues. With Leeds likely to play a system which culminates in a very open game (evident in their encounter with City, in which 35 shots were taken), the Xhaka-Ceballos pivot could be left somewhat exposed.
If Arteta makes even one minor tweak, it'll instantly regain some of the fans who were beginning to lose trust back on side. Something as simple as moving Aubameyang centrally would do it. So do it.
Two coaches who are so heavily tactical can often result in drab encounters, in which zones, positioning and man marking can take over from the flow of the game. However, on the flip side we could well see a very open game where both sides get at each other throughout (as seen in the Leeds vs City game aforementioned). Let's hope for the latter.
My Line-Up: Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Xhaka, Ceballos, Pepe, Willock, Saka, Aubameyang.
Score Prediction: 1-1. The fact this is bold is mad.