Eddie Nketiah floors Leeds to strengthen Arsenal’s grip on fourth

Luke Ayling sent off as Leeds drop into relegation zone

Arsenal 2 Leeds United 1

The equation for Arsenal is tantalisingly, terrifyingly simple. If they win at Spurs on Thursday they will confirm a return to Champions League football. There was ample cause here both for intense optimism and profound caution.

Leeds may not have helped themselves during an abject first half, but they were still blown away by the insistent, emphatic tempo set by Mikel Arteta’s players.

Eddie Nketiah, whose future remains in doubt, added fuel to that particular debate with two early goals; Luke Ayling's subsequent dismissal seemed to effectively end the contest but, remarkably, Arsenal were hanging on by the end of the game. Diego Llorente ensured the last 25 minutes were far nervier than they should have been, and Arsenal's propensity to usher their opposition towards a glimmer of daylight remains a problem.


If Nketiah was preparing a prospectus for a new contract, whether at the Emirates or elsewhere, he would not find two better summations of his gifts than these. While the first goal was an embarrassment for Illan Meslier, who had already shown early jitters in fumbling a Martin Ødegaard free-kick, it would not have been possible without Nketiah's sheer hunger and nose for a mistake.

Ayling’s pass back to Meslier, one of the right back’s few accurate contributions during his time on the pitch, could have been cleared easily but the goalkeeper took a touch and let it run across his body. He showed far too much of it to Nketiah, who had eaten up the ground to capitalise and was able to swipe it into the net from a few yards.

That was Nketiah by numbers, but it was also the kind of opportunity Arsenal would not create without him. Before 10 minute had elapsed he poached another, stationing himself 10 yards out as Gabriel Martinelli, showing admirable ball control but still getting away with extraordinary ease, escaped down the left. The cutback was accurate and Nketiah, mystifyingly unmarked, could clip in a regulation finish.

Arsenal should have scored plenty more after that and the narrow scoreline cannot mask a largely catastrophic showing from Leeds that leaves them in the bottom three, with Chelsea up next. Relegation looms large.

In their previous game they had, at least, got up close and personal with Manchester City before being brushed aside; here they were a mess from the kick-off and it spoke volumes that, the first time one of their players got conspicuously close to one of his opponents, he misjudged it badly enough to be dismissed.

It is hard to contend Ayling’s red card made much difference to the outcome, but it was a snapshot of what had gone so wrong. Ayling, who began his career at Arsenal, had been roasted by Martinelli for Nketiah’s second goal and fared little better when trying to track two subsequent runs. When Martinelli showed characteristic speed and appetite to keep a long, raking pass in play near the left sideline, Ayling hurtled over and it was as if he had decided it was time to show the Brazilian that he was in the game.

Referee Chris Kavanagh initially concluded Ayling had simply gone in too hard while taking the ball. A yellow card was shown but the challenge's force had been considerable and it did not take the most pedantic of VAR reruns to show that he had launched into Martinelli with two feet, leaping off the ground for traction and ploughing through his man. There was no chance the original decision would be upheld and, once Kavanagh had run to his monitor, the die was cast.

From there the outstanding questions seemed to be whether Arsenal would settle for two and if Leeds, who seemed happy to keep it at that given Jesse Marsch immediately replaced Joe Gelhardt with Pascal Struijk, could keep 10 men on the pitch. Meslier's continuing skittishness suggested the former would remain in doubt: he flapped at a corner and saved uncomfortably from an Ødegaard free-kick, although he fared slightly better in deflecting Martinelli's angled effort away with a foot.

Arsenal's second half should have been a stroll in the sun, although perhaps the fact it was turning into one became a problem. The irrepressible Martinelli drew a genuinely good save from Meslier, lifted over and then sliced wide. Leeds' supporters were determined their club would emerge with at least some credit. They waved white scarves and made the lion's share of the noise; in the 66th minute they roared to acclaim a rare corner and must have been astonished when, after Junior Firpo had flicked on, Llorente converted at the far post. It was Leeds' first goal attempt.

From nowhere, a familiar jitteriness rippled around Arsenal’s home. Ødegaard could have calmed it but shot wide. Meslier went up for two set pieces and was at close quarters when Aaron Ramsdale saved a last-gasp Rodrigo flick. Arsenal can just about see the finishing line. – Guardian