Graeme Souness labelled Leeds’ defending during their 4-1 home defeat against Arsenal as “playground” football and described them as an “absolute shambles” as the pressure mounted on manager Marcelo Bielsa.
Gabriel Martinelli fired a first-half double as Arsenal chalked up a third straight Premier League win with a classy 4-1 victory at the injury-hit hosts
Leeds, in the middle of a daunting run of fixtures and hammered 7-0 in a club-record Premier League defeat in midweek, were without nine senior players through injury and suspension for what was the only top-flight game of the day as coronavirus outbreaks destroyed the rest of the fixture list.
But the result means Bielsa has overseen three straight Premier League defeats with 14 goals conceded across those games. Arsenal had 11 shots on target in the first half – the most on record of any side in the opening 45 minutes in a single match in the Premier League.
Speaking during the interval when reflecting on Leeds’ defending during the opening 45 minutes, Souness told Sky Sports: “If Leeds continue to be asked to play like this, they are bang in trouble.
“I just don’t know how you can expect your players to play like that. For Martinelli’s second, Cody Drameh is running forward into Raphinha’s space and he doesn’t sense the danger. I don’t want to be unkind to him, but he must look over his shoulder and see Martinelli.
“Leeds weren’t in total possession of the ball. Leeds play like they are in the school playground. Leeds are an absolute shambles.”
Speaking after the match, Souness concluded: “Arsenal will never have an easier away game this year. In the first half, they could have scored six or seven goals. Leeds were so disjointed and making defensive decisions which will take some understanding. They took their foot off the accelerator in the second half and won easily.
“This is what mystifies me about the game tonight. We keep talking about young players, but I’m not sure if it was just about young players doing their jobs tonight because some decisions the senior players were making… it’s all about their attempt to play. They’re not good enough to take better football teams on and say ‘we’re going to beat you 4-3 tonight’.
“If I was a Leeds supporter, I’d be concerned about the type of football they are playing because they are vulnerable. At the start of the season, it was 6-1 at United and they were beaten 7-0 this week. Leeds play a brand of football which means they can always possibly get turned over big style by the better teams.
“I want to ask Mr Bielsa if I ever meet him – what is more important to you? Is it the style of football you want to play and being on the front foot, which is admirable, or is it winning football matches?
“And I think I know the answer. What is more important to him is how they play than what the result is. If the fans are getting behind him at the end, maybe that’s the answer.
“I just worry that you’re asking players who aren’t good enough to play like Barcelona from 10 or 12 years ago. A lot of managers are guilty of that, but he takes it to another level.”
Neville: Leeds like an U9s team
It was clear Robin Koch was asked to do a man-to-man marking job on Alexandre Lacazette, but it only resulted in leaving space for Martin Odegaard to exploit in the build up to Saka extending Arsenal’s lead on the stroke of half-time.
In his role as co-commentator, Gary Neville told Sky Sports: “It’s not for me to talk about how Bielsa plays the game, but I’m not having that against Lacazette.
“If that was a great player up front, who could maybe turn and get on the ball and run at you – Messi or someone like that – you might go and follow him and man mark.
“But not Lacazette. He’s just pulling the centre-backs of Leeds all over the place and leaving gaps for the others to fill, but they can’t fill them.”
“They are such a mess, Leeds. Arsenal have been really good and exploited it. I just don’t see the benefit of Koch chasing Lacazette all over the pitch and leaving so much for the rest of the defenders to do.
“Like I said, it’s like an U9s team defending. Five or six of them all trying to block the same ball at once.”
‘Leeds injuries right through core of team’
Arsenal, who had climbed back into the top four after back-to-back wins against Southampton and West Ham, threatened to run amok against a patched-up Leeds line-up and could have led by more than 3-0 at the break.
Martinelli’s double put the Gunners 2-0 up in 28 minutes and when Bukayo Saka added a third just before half-time, Leeds appeared set for another thrashing.
But Bielsa’s side improved markedly after the break and reduced the deficit through Raphinha’s penalty before substitute Emile Smith Rowe’s late effort snuffed out any faint hopes of a fightback.
Leeds, who face Liverpool at Anfield on Boxing Day, are five points above the relegation zone but 18th-placed Burnley have three games in hand.
The club’s former striker Jermaine Beckford told Sky Sports: “We’ve touched on it before, but there have just been injuries to key players right the way through the team. Those injuries are right through the core of the side and it’s pretty much the regular starting XI.
“It was extremely disappointing from the point of view of being a threat in the final third and from a defensive point of view, they were all over the place.
“It was too easy for Alexandre Lacazette to lose his man. Robin Koch was following him all over the place, which left gaping holes in the middle of the defence. The Arsenal wingers exploited Leeds very well.”
Leeds have just 16 points from their 18 Premier League games this season, the joint-fewest they have earned at this stage of a league campaign in their history (converting to three points per win all-time), level with 2006/07 in the Championship.
“You have to have a tolerance to the frustration,” he said when asked if he is currently in the midst of his biggest test as Leeds boss.
“You need to be very convinced in a big way on the way you’re going to absorb these types of moments. There are examples that show and have a lot of value.
“For example, Robin Koch was willing to return today after four months out, and this participation wasn’t in an ideal state. Despite that, he chose to play. Apart from that, the game didn’t overcome him. Stuart Dallas received a lot of knocks today, and yet he finished the game like Raphinha.”
Bielsa was asked to explain the problems his side caused for themselves during the first half.
The Argentine added: “If we lose the ball before we get to the opponents’ half or we lose it close to where we recover it, we increase the offensive possibilities of the opponent. We allowed actions that could imbalance us that are avoidable if we manage to get into the opponents’ half.
“In the first half, we didn’t manage to resolve this and it generated more opportunities for Arsenal to score. In the second half, we improved our recovery of the ball, but we never managed to get them to make mistakes.
“In the first half, we made a lot of effort so that their forwards didn’t receive the ball comfortably, and their forwards didn’t receive chances that were too clear-cut. But when we lost the ball in the middle of the pitch or closer to our own goal, this increased their possibilities.
“There was never a question of whether this game would go ahead. We had a series of injuries which was added to by the illness of Diego Llorente and injury to Charlie Cresswell, but there aren’t rules to stop a game due to injuries or suspensions.”
Arteta: Martinelli has come a long way
There is greater consistency to Arsenal, reflected in three straight wins and Arteta naming the same starting XI in four consecutive Premier League games for the first time since a run of six between April and May 2015.
Arteta said: “It was a great performance from the lads. They’re the ones who have to execute [the game plan] against a team who are uncomfortable to play against. We’ve had three games in a week, very physical games. I’m very pleased.
“We had some intentions. I think the players understood the game really well. We were really effective and in the first half we were really good. I think we deserved these three wins and we’re really pleased.”
Arteta reserved special praise for Martinelli, who was eased into the season following his exertions at the Tokyo Olympics with Brazil.
Having scored four goals in his last six games, Arteta said: “We see the player every day so know when to use him based on whether he’s in the right frame of mind.
“He’s come a long way. His energy and his passion is all there, but there are other aspects that he’s had to develop like the chances he had today, he had to put them away. He’s heading in the right direction.