Arsenal already knew they would be travelling to Leeds without Mohamed Elneny after the Egyptian tested positive for Covid-19 whilst on international duty.
It was also confirmed on Friday morning that Thomas Partey will be unavailable for the trip to Elland Road. He has not recovered from a thigh injury sustained in the Gunners’ last match before the international break, a 3-0 home defeat to Aston Villa.
Sunday’s game against Leeds is a must-win match for Mikel Arteta’s side. They have struggled for consistency in the Premier League so far this campaign, with four wins and four defeats from eight games. If Arteta is to guide Arsenal back to the promised land of the Champions League, his team must embark on a winning streak sooner rather than later.
Despite being a tricky one, the fixture against Leeds is an ideal place to start. Against a free-flowing team and the tactical nous of Marcelo Bielsa, who preaches an entertaining and expansive style, Arsenal can wreak havoc in attack if they play their cards right. The absences of Elneny and Partey, a duo who have shown themselves to be adept at breaking up opposition attacks, will be a big blow.
However, it might also result in a more adventurous approach from Arteta, the Spaniard favouring a counter-attacking style that prioritises pragmatism over attacking firepower.
Much has been made of Arsenal’s struggles in front of goal so far in 2020-21. They have scored just nine times in their first eight matches. A combination of the loss to Villa, as well as Partey and Elneny being sidelined, might have forced his hand into a more attacking game plan.
Arsenal’s shortage of midfield options mean Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos are likely to start. Arteta has made no secret of his desire to eventually switch a 4-3-3 and whether by coincidence or not, Joe Willock has excelled for Arsenal in the cup competitions. Whether Willock is ready for more minutes in the Premier League will only be known if he is given the chance.
Attacking duo Willian and Alexandre Lacazette have struggled for form recently and would be fortunate to see their names appear in the starting line-up on Sunday. Given Lacazette’s lack of goals, it seems like the perfect time to start Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has been isolated on the wide left, through the middle. Eddie Nketiah scored again for England U21 in the international break, so the Hale End graduate presents another alternative up front.
Approaching his first anniversary as Arsenal manager, Arteta has demonstrated his ability to improvise and innovate in an effort to get the best out of a squad that is far from complete. In particular, he has responded well to defeats that have raised questions about Arsenal’s ability to progress with him at the helm. Their previous game aside, Arsenal have become far more difficult to beat, conceding the second-fewest goals in the league to date.
The next challenge Arteta faces is how to get his team scoring goals on a regular basis. After drilling his players about the importance of their positioning off the ball, it is time for him to start placing more importance on what they do with it. Thanks to Leeds’ willingness to commit men forward, Arsenal could find they have plenty of space in behind the Whites’ defence. When presented with attacking opportunities against a side as good in the final third as Leeds, Arteta’s side must take advantage.
Goalscoring comes as a result of ruthless finishing and efficient execution, qualities Arsenal have lacked so far this season. With some stagnant performances where they have flattered to deceive, the time has come to break the shackles.
Caution doesn’t necessarily have to be thrown to the wind, because individual discipline has served the Gunners well to this point. However, if this Arsenal side are to evolve into a top team, Arteta must not be afraid of going full steam ahead.
Zac CampbellFollow @ZPRCmpbell