Back in the team and back in the goals – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is, well, back. The Arsenal captain’s first start since January 18, heralded a goal glut: a hat-trick for the Gabonese striker alone as Mikel Arteta’s men returned to winning ways with the win on Sunday evening over Leeds United.
Having been given compassionate leave to care for his unwell mother, Aubameyang made up for his absence in the emphatic fashion today. Thankfully his mother is on the mend – her son’s goal ratio has also improved significantly after this. It’s 11 for the season for Aubameyang now – his trio of strikes firing himself back to the top of the club’s goalscoring charts.
But after what has been a below-par season for their star striker so far, Aubameyang’s return to form could mean something far more substantial than the three points he secured here.
Credit to Leeds, even at 4-0 down – mainly down to Illan Meslier’s calamitous display – Marcelo Bielsa’s side kept punching. They halved the deficit by full time and had referee Stuart Atwell pointed to the spot when Patrick Bamford fell into the box under Cedric Soares’ rash challenge in the closing stages then perhaps, they’d have completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. But that would have been tough on Arsenal, who were by and large far superior as they returned to winning ways following two successive losses.
Their performance was bright and purposeful. Not quite the swagger we associate with Arsenal teams of the past – but certainly a marked difference from the workmanlike offerings we’ve grown accustomed too this season. The return of Aubameyang to the starting XI provided Arteta’s men with a greater threat in attack; and the technical ability of Martin Odegaard in the No10 role – making his first start since arriving from Real Madrid – instantly gave the Gunners the sort of invention they’ve been lacking.
Indeed, it was Aubameyang who fired Arsenal into a deserved 14th minute lead. The passing in the buildup was crisp and incisive; the Arsenal captain eventually receiving the ball from Granit Xhaka. Aubameyang still had plenty to do, mind. But he bypassed Luke Ayling like he wasn’t there before firing inside Meslier’s near post.
Bielsa would have pointed the finger at his goalkeeper, who got a hand on Aubameyang’s effort, for being beaten at the post he should have been covering.
Similarly, had Patrick Bamford gobbled up a decent headed opportunity seconds prior to Aubameyang’s opener then it may have been a different story. But that was all neither here nor there. Arsenal were en route to victory – that’s all that mattered. That’s not to say Leeds were overawed, they had no reason to be, of course.
But this was a bad day at the office. Kalvin Phillips’ absence through injury was certainly a blow – but even the England international would have had difficulty in stemming Arsenal’s flow. Jack Harrison’s effort from Raphinha’s pass provided a glimmer of hope – but Arsenal weren’t going to let Leeds off the hook.
They thought they were awarded a 34th minute penalty when Liam Cooper carelessly bundled the electric Bukayo Saka over in the box only for Atwell to overturn his own decision after Andre Marriner, in Stockley Park, suggested he reviewed the footage. Arsenal, however, didn’t have wait long for a bona-fide spot kick. Again it was Saka who was being a nuisance.
Meslier should have cleared his lines when receiving the ball from Cooper but instead he dawdled. And then dawdled some more. Saka certainly wasn’t in the mood for any dawdling as he hijacked Meslier’s attempts to clear in the 40th minute. There was no reprieve for Leeds this time as Atwell, for the second time, pointed to the spot. Aubameyang made no mistake, sending the hapless Meslier the wrong way.
The Leeds keeps wanted the ground to swallow him up there and then; unfortunately he wasn’t that lucky. Arsenal added a third before half time and again there were serious reservations about Meslier’s goalkeeping. Saka, inevitably, was at the heart of it as he ran the length of the penalty area before finding Aubameyang, whose cross created havoc in the Leeds area.
Eventually, Dani Ceballos played in Hector Bellerin who squeezed an angled shot inside Meslier’s near post. The gap between the Leeds keeper and the upright hardly seemed big enough to fit a size five football through. But Bellerin found the gap; Meslier and his manager Bielsa were completely and utterly forlorn. Half-time brought some respite for Leeds following this most harrowing of first-half experiences.
Bielsa responded by hauling off Jack Harrison and Mateusz Klich in place of Tyler Roberts and Helder Costa in hope of some improvement. It only got worse for the visitor’s. Two minutes it took for Aubameyang to complete his hat-trick, as he nodded home Emile Smith Rowe’s cross at the back post.
Leeds pulled a goal back through Pascal Struijk’s bullet header in the 58th minute before Costa fired home fellow substitute Roberts’ cross in the 69th minute to make things interesting. But the damage was done – Aubameyang and Meslier saw to that.
Man United and West Brom game ended 1 – 1
In the other game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer insists Manchester United can still catch Premier League leaders Manchester City despite a damaging 1-1 draw at struggling West Brom on Sunday. Solskjaer’s side were rocked by Mbaye Diagne’s second-minute opener for Albion at the Hawthorns.
Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes levelled just before half-time with his 19th goal of the season in all competitions. United were unable to break down second-bottom Albion again and had to settle for a third damaging draw in their last four league matches. They moved above Leicester into second place, but sit seven points behind City, who have a game in hand.
“We should play better but we gave ourselves a tough start. You have 90 minutes to make amends, but we didn’t build that momentum until late in the first half,” Solskjaer said.
“They put a cross in and the boy finished well. We did get down the sides sometimes but didn’t have anybody to tap them in. One of these days we weren’t where we should have been.”
United have lost just once in 18 league games and are unbeaten in 19 away league matches, but they left the icy West Midlands well aware City are now firmly in pole position to win the title.
“It’s a compliment for the boys that we got into (the) position we are now. We won’t let them run away with it,” Solskjaer said. “We’re playing them soon. We’re not giving it away early, no, we’re not!”
After the blistering form that carried them into the title race across December and January, United are stumbling while City have won their last 11 league games. Aware of the physical threat posed by Sam Allardyce’s teams, Solskjaer had warned his players to put their “bodies on the line” to deal with Albion’s aerial assault.
But that message clearly didn’t sink in as Albion took the lead after just 83 seconds. Conor Gallagher swung over a teasing cross from the right and Diagne overpowered United defender Victor Lindelof as he muscled past him before thumping a diving header beyond David de Gea.
It was the 29-year-old Senegal striker’s first goal in four appearances since his loan move from Galatasaray in January.
Diagne won another duel with Lindelof, but to the relief of the United centre-back, this time the header sailed wide of the far post. United’s defenders were struggling every time Albion put the ball in the air and Conor Townsend’s cross found Robert Snodgrass for a header that De Gea tipped over. But, as he has so often since signing from Sporting Lisbon last year, Fernandes bailed United out in the 44th minute.