Five things learned as Bielsa makes goalless stalemate exciting

In a Premier League encounter that had everything except a goal Leeds United and 10-man Arsenal shared the spoils at Elland Road.

The Gunners were enduring a frustrating evening prior to Nicolas Pepe’s sending off, with the Ivorian given his marching orders for a headbutt on Ezgjan Alioski seven minutes after the restart. Leeds continued to press and probe but to no avail and Arsenal held firm at the back. 

Mikel Arteta commented that facing Leeds was comparable with a ‘trip to the dentist’ when these sides met in the FA Cup back in January, which ended in a 1-0 home win for the Gunners. Well, this was another visit for the Spaniard, only this time he left with a toothache.

A point apiece keeps both sides in the bottom half of the table, but what did we learn from this pulsating encounter?

1. Kalvin Phillips the heartbeat of Bielsa-ball

Every club has that one player who is simply undroppable, and for Leeds that man is Kalvin Phillips. The 24-year-old England international had missed the previous three outings with a shoulder injury but returned this evening, and his presence exuded a confidence in Leeds as he orbited the centre circle, dictating play.

The metronomic midfielder operates as Bielsa’s conduit, linking midfield to attack by procuring the ball and recycling play. There are more explosive players on the pitch: Raphinha looked threatening ghosting into the box, while Rodrigo was lively upon his introduction. But, it was Phillips further back who kept play ticking over like clockwork.

He was the heartbeat of Leeds’ scintillating play this evening, making more passes than any player on the pitch (87) and more than triple that of Granit Xhaka (25), who was playing a similar role in front of defence in the opposing third.

Leeds can feel hard done by that the desired result was not forthcoming, but this was a much improved performance from the previous two matches (back-to-back 4-1 defeats), and it is no surprise that this impressive showing coincided with the reintroduction of Phillips: Leeds’ luxurious axis.

2. Willian’s worrying form contiues

Chelsea fans were lamenting the departure of Willian on matchday one after the seasoned Brazilian winger provided two sumptuous assists on his Premier League debut for Arsenal, who sunk a toothless Fulham in an opening-day 3-0 win. Nine games later and that narrative has taken a 180 spin.

Since that Craven Cottage salvo, Willian has failed to provide a single direct contribution, with the proceeding nine league games largely passing the 32-year-old by. His acquisition in the summer on a free transfer looked a masterstroke on paper, but his half-time withdrawal this evening was indicative of a player seemingly on the wane.

Granted Willian is not the only culprit of Arsenal’s misfortunes up front, and perhaps some leeway is permitted in his case as he doesn’t have an exorbitant price tag looming over his shoulders, but for a player of his quality and experience in the English top flight, fans must expect more from the forward.

3. Pepe’s hothead sums up pitiful performance

It was a moment of madness that underpinned a frustrating evening for Nicolas Pepe, who took the rather ridiculous decision to clash heads with Ezgjan Alioski. Quite why the Ivorian thought to headbutt Alioski in this age of perpetual surveillance is anyone’s guess.

The North Macedonian dangled the line and Pepe took the bait, with Anthony Taylor left little option but to brandish red upon a second viewing from the pitchside monitor. And in truth, that hotheaded snapshot largely summed up another underwhelming evening for Arsenal’s £72m man.

This was only his second Premier League start of the season, and like Willian, he was far too passive to truly expose the soft underbelly of Leeds’ defence, who had conceded eight goals in the two previous outings.

There is no question that Pepe has the requisite tools to thrive in the Premier League. In fact, it was the man in the opposing dugout who first saw the potential of the 25-year-old. Bielsa was the man responsible for bringing Pepe to Lille in 2017 from Angers, but he is yet to exhibit that Dogues form in north London.

4. Give him time, he will deliver

Bielsa’s famed dossiers are well-documented, with the enigmatic tactician a renowned perfectionist and meticulous planner. And here the Argentine had a fortnight to prepare for a difficult challenge against Arsenal, and his gameplan nearly proved a masterstroke.

When he had plenty of time to prepare for an opening-day encounter against the reigning champions Liverpool, Leeds stunned the top-flight by scoring three goals at fortress Anfield and bettering Jurgen Klopp’s men for possession in a 4-3 reversal.

In the hustle and bustle of Premier League football where games come thick and fast, particularly with this season’s congested schedule, managers are being tested to the limit, but one thing it for certain: if Bielsa has more than a week to ready his side, boy will they be ready.

Tonight’s game felt like the Leeds of pre-Leicester and Crystal Palace; a side that dazzled going forward in concentric waves and exhibitions of swashbuckling football. When they are on song they are a joy to watch, and tonight was Leeds in microcosm: a well-oiled machine that can outperform anyone on their day.

5. Back-three was not the issue for Arteta

Defensively Arsenal have improved exponentially under Arteta, who has been a staunch advocate of the three-man defence, and with good reason. His side have only conceded 10 goals; prior to the Aston Villa humbling they had the second-best defensive record in the division.

Under Unai Emery, the defensive issue was a bone of contention among fans, with the club’s beleaguered backline frequently exposed when faced with quality opposition. In contrast, Arsenal largely remedied that defensive shortcoming with sheer world class ability in the final third, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a reliable goal-getter and match-winner.

However, the Gabon international has now gone eight league games without scoring from open play; his last finish in such a manner came on matchday one against Fulham. His only other league goal was the penalty that sealed a 1-0 win at Man Utd before the international break.

And so, looking to play a more expansive game and have his frontline more proactive, Arteta ditched his beloved back-three system and went with a a 4-2-3-1, with Aubameyang deployed through the middle and not shoehorned on the flank.

Different method, same result, though for Arsenal, who once again lacked the cutting edge and drive going forward to penetrate through Leeds. Arsenal remain on just nine goals for the campaign, the joint-fifth worst in the division. And the attacking quandary remains prominent for Arteta.

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