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Individual howlers condemn Leeds to defeat at the Emirates
Sunday, 8th May 2022 21:54 by Tim Whelan

Leeds endured a torrid first half-hour against Arsenal, thanks to two very different individual errors from Ilian Meslier and Luke Ayling. We battled hard and avoided the hiding that looked likely at that stage, but this was still a very damaging defeat.

The weekend had started well with Burnley’s good run coming to an unexpected end on Saturday, to give us a bit of hope that their new manager bounce had come to an end. And with Everton facing a seemingly difficult game at Leicester, it looked like we wouldn’t lose any ground if this difficult game didn’t go our way, though of course it would be a welcome bonus if we picked up at least a point.

We had hoped to see Liam Cooper back in the squad, and maybe even Bamford, but before kick-off we learned that their recoveries hadn’t progressed quite far enough, and they could risk further damage if they made their comeback too soon. And as a reminder of another absent friend, the club had provided Stuart Dallas t-shirts for every one of our 3,000 fans in the away section of the stadium.

With Gelhardt having turned 20 earlier in the week he was deemed to be old enough for Jesse Marsch to respond to the pleas of some of our fans to give him a start, so we could have a proper striker leading the line. James played behind him in an attacking midfield role, while Rodrigo was dropped to the bench.

Our former loan player Ben White was missing from the Arsenal squad with injury, but their other ex-Leeds loan man would more than compensate with the two early goals that would ultimately decide the game. After only five minutes Ayling played the ball back to Meslier for what should have been a routine clearance, once he’d loved the ball across to his stronger left foot.

But perhaps Eddie Nketia knew him well enough to anticipate he would do that, and the Frenchman’s heavy first touch left him with too much ground to make up once Nketia came racing in. Nketia got to the ball first to score from close range, but at least had the decency to only allow himself a modest celebration. And five minutes later things got even worse for Leeds.

Martinelli got past Ayling to reach the touchline and get the cross in, while the Leeds defence took the new non-man marking system a bit too literally as none of them managed to track Nketia’s run into the box. And although it arrived slightly behind him, our former loan man had time to adjust his feet and put the ball beyond Meslier’s reach for his second goal.

After his early howler Meslier started to belt the ball downfield to clear the danger whenever it came to him, while being sarcastically cheered by the Arsenal fans every time. But in doing so he tended to give Arsenal possession again, which helped them to maintain the pressure on our goal. Though at least our keeper got some confidence back with a smart save from Saka.

But as if we hadn’t inflicted enough damage on ourselves already, Luke Ayling got himself sent off just before the half-hour mark with a ludicrous challenge. He might have been irritated by Martinelli getting past him for the first goal, the game in general or his offside appeal being ignored, but there was no excuse for diving in two footed on the byline instead of just trying to prevent the cross.

I thought at first he’d got the ball, but that was only because Martinelli had played it against him before contact was made. His initial yellow card was swapped for a red once the referee was advised to go and look at the monitor, and that ended his season, as he now has a three match ban with only three left to play. Who will be the right-back for those games? With Dallas also out it would have been Drameh if he hadn’t flounced off to Cardiff, which now looks most regrettable.

For some reason Raphinha got highly animated about the dismissal and picked up a yellow card for dissent, and had to be restrained by Harrison so we didn’t go down to nine men. At least it showed he still cares about us, for all the talk about him being off in the summer. Marsch decided it was damage limitation time, so Gelhardt was sacrificed so that Struijk could come on to reinforce the defence.

Shortly before the break a free-kick from Odegaard took a deflection off Harrison but Meslier just managed to adjust in time to get a hand to it, and Llorente stretched to acrobatically clear the ball before it could spin over the line. Perhaps our best hope of getting back into the game could have been to provoke Arsenal’s most volatile player (Xhaka) in the hope of getting him sent off to make it ten a side. Klich made a start on winding him up, but only got a booking himself for his efforts.

That yellow card might have played a part in the decision to replace Klich with Bate for the second half, and on the hour Marsch decided to save Raphinha for the vital games to come and ensure that his frustrations didn’t cause him to pick up a second yellow, with Rodrigo being our final substitute. But Arsenal’s dominance continued, as Martinelli was put through by Nketia but couldn’t quite control the ball and sent it over the bar.

But on 66 minutes the Leeds fans were able to cheer wildly as we forced our first corner of the game, and miraculously it led to us to pulling a goal back. Firpo flicked it on and Llorente pulled away into space beyond the far post, to score with a finish that a striker would be proud of. The Spaniard had already shown us with his fine goal against Watford earlier in the season that he knows what to do when the ball drops to his feet, so would he be any good as a centre forward?

Suddenly it seemed possible that we might get something from this game after all, which would have been a massive morale boost after we’d seemingly been in for a right hiding after the disastrous first half-hour. Bate was playing some good passes in midfield and Arsenal were looking a bit worried as we began to grow in confidence.

Odegaard missed the chance to seal the game as turned and went past two of our defenders, only to drag the ball just past the post, and we forced a couple more corners near the end we began to regret that Gelhardt was no longer on the pitch. One moment of inspiration might have been all that was needed.

As we moved into the 90th minute Meslier came up for a corner, but as it was cleared Arsenal seemed likely to race downfield and put the ball into an empty net, only for James to intervene on the halfway line. Perhaps with his defensive awareness he will get the right back duties for the last three games.

There were three minutes of injury time and our final chance came when Phillips’ free kick was flicked on by Firpo, but Rodrigo couldn’t quite get his back header to loop over the top of Ramsdale. And that was it. We can take a lot of heart from the way we battled back into the game and could have snatched a point right at the end, but the Ayling dismissal will still be hugely damaging.

As will Everton’s unexpected win at Leicester. Seeing as their next game is against the abysmal Watford it could well come down to us having to get more points than Burnley over the final three games. Can we manage to do that?


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