Arsenal vs. Leeds score: Nicolas Pepe sees red as Gunners hang on to earn a point

Arsenal survived an inexplicable red card for Nicolas Pepe and a wave of pressure from Leeds United to earn a 0-0 draw at Elland Road on Sunday. The Gunners had been on the back foot for much of the first half against last season’s Championship winners and might have been trailing but for a series of impressive saves by Bernd Leno. 

The pressure on Arsenal’s goal did not ease when Pepe was sent off for violent conduct early in the second half with Patrick Bamford and Raphinha hitting the post as Leeds, who registered 25 shots on goal, were frustrated in their pursuit of what would have been a statement win.

Here are the key talking points from the game:

Moving Aubameyang doesn’t solve underlying issues

After eight games that had seen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang register fewer shots on goal (10) than Harry Maguire, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Yves Bissouma, it seemed only natural that Mikel Arteta would bring his star striker in from the cold out on the left wing to be the focal point of Arsenal’s attack. 

There was a sense that Arteta was doing so reluctantly. Speaking to Sky Sports before kickoff, he insisted that Aubameyang’s “natural” position was wide on the left. It is perhaps difficult to explain how a manager would reach that conclusion on a player who has ranked among Europe’s finest center-forwards for half a decade but that is beside the point. Wherever he is played, Arsenal’s talismanic striker will only be effective if you can get the ball to him.

By halftime Aubameyang had had just four touches in the final third, three fewer than Kieran Tierney and a tally bettered by every Leeds player except goalkeeper Illan Meslier and his two center-backs. Arsenal’s best striker was starved of service in the areas where he can influence the game. Too often he was dropping back with Joe Willock struggling to offer any creative influence or running into the channels because Willian and Nicolas Pepe were not picking him out in more central areas.

There are chasms of space around this Arsenal attack that Aubameyang feels compelled to fill because otherwise how can moves get built? The problem is that in doing so he ensures that if the ball does get into danger areas he is not in the right position to get the crucial touch.

Leeds’ attack is best form of defense

Marcelo Bielsa’s side returned to Elland Road after two grueling 4-1 defeats against Leicester and Crystal Palace and yet the Leeds boss did not break up his backline. His two changes saw Raphinha handed a first start and Kalvin Phillips restored to the side after injury against Wolverhampton Wanderers last month.

Though Phillips added nous to the Leeds defensive effort, it should be no great surprise that Bielsa did not deviate from the energetic pressing template he has applied in such invigorating fashion throughout his managerial career, rather his side took to their task with greater intensity. Arsenal were hemmed in high up the pitch and were attacked with vigor and ferocity, forcing chance after chance and continually testing Leno.

Indeed the game could have been in Leeds’ hands by the interval as they registered 12 shots on goal. None of them were simple chances to convert but sheer weight of numbers ought to have brought more.

Ultimately Pepe’s red card might have made Leeds’ chances of winning rather harder, removing much of Arsenal’s motivation to chase a win and instead turning this into an exercise where the hosts had to find their way through a low block. That is not when this team is at its best and it might just have been enough to protect Leno’s clean sheet.

Pepe blows his prime chance

The story of Pepe’s Arsenal career has been his search for consistency. The flashes of excellence — his performance in the FA Cup Final win over Chelsea, two brilliant free kicks to beat Vitoria Guimaraes — were just what you would want from a $95-million player. They came all too fleetingly for a player with his price tag.

Pepe has at last given that consistency to Arteta, who has never seemed entirely taken by his charms. For the next three games Arsenal know exactly what they will be getting from their record signing: nothing at all. There is simply nothing to excuse his 52nd minute red card.

The robust off-ball defending Ezgjan Alioski meted out is nowhere near enough to explain Pepe’s tame nudge of his head (it would be generous to label it a headbutt) toward his opponent. Arsenal were already on the ropes, a man down they had little choice but to try and withstand the pummeling that Leeds delivered.

Nicolas Pepe makes his way to the stands after being sent off in Arsenal’s match against Leeds
Getty Images

And yet the harshest truth is in purely attacking terms Arsenal did not really miss Pepe. This was supposed to be the Ivorian’s big chance with Alexandre Lacazette dropped and Willian struggling for 45 minutes before being replaced by Reiss Nelson. Instead he gave away nearly 30 percent of the passes he attempted, created just one chance and spurned a promising break by curling a long range shot well wide.

Notable performances

Jack Harrison: A menace down the Leeds left, his crossing from open play continually giving Patrick Bamford something to challenge for. RATING: 8

Rob Holding: You could see why he seemed to be the only defender Leeds did not press, his passing was so wayward they could feel pretty confident the ball was coming back their way. However when Arsenal found themselves on the back foot Holding came into his own, throwing himself at every cross and offering a clearing head. RATING: 5

Liam Cooper: He might have expected to be busier with Aubameyang playing through the middle but when he was called upon the Scottish center-back was excellent, particularly with his block of a late shot by the Arsenal forward. RATING: 7

Up next

Leeds travel to Everton on Saturday, the day before Arsenal take on Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Premier League. Before then the Gunners travel to Norway to face Molde in the Europa League on Thursday.

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