No Saka, no problem as Arsenal go through the gears to keep Manchester City at bay

Ian Watson
Arsenal fans display a banner featuring Mikel Arteta before the win over Leeds.

Arsenal coped admirably without Bukayo Saka in their XI for the first time in 55 Premier League games after a shaky start against Leeds. And Jesus has risen a week early…

Liverpool did Arsenal – and themselves – no favours whatsoever at lunchtime. But the Gunners showed once again they can take care of their own business by answering Manchester City’s dominance of the Reds with an authoritative 4-1 win of their own. That’s seven straight wins; they’re eight points clear, now with nine games to go.

And all that was achieved, for the most part, without their best player. Bukayo Saka’s absence in Mikel Arteta’s XI for the first time since December 2021, his name on 54 consecutive Premier League teamsheets beforehand, won’t have soothed the inevitable jitters of Arsenal fans trudging towards the Emirates after watching the champions’ exhibition. And a shaky opening half-hour won’t have helped either. But these Gunners seem nerveless in the face of City’s pursuit.

Saka saw half an hour’s action, with Arteta allowing the starboy to stretch his legs after he missed training on Friday. The winger’s illness was one of “quite a few things going on in last few days” for the Gunners, with William Saliba also being nursed back to health.

Initially, Arsenal felt their absence. Leeds gave as good as they got, perhaps more, for half an hour with Saka and Saliba’s replacements, Rob Holding and Leandro Trossard, taking their time to develop a connection with those around them. Saka is pivotal to Arsenal’s attacking shape, with the winger receiving 405 progressive passes, far and above the highest number in the Premier League this season. The next highest, Gabriel Martinelli, was on 288 before kick-off. Martinelli took the slack, with more than half of Arsenal’s attacks in the first half hour coming down his left side, with only eight per cent down the flank Saka usually occupies.

It didn’t help that the Gunners almost offered another head start, with Rasmus Kristensen’s drive coming even earlier than Bournemouth’s recent opener, but Aaron Ramsdale was equal to it. The Yorkshiremen maintained that positive start, prompting Saka to limber up with only 25 minutes gone. That, and an off-target header from Gabriel Jesus, was the only thing to excite the home supporters during a half-hour that, according to Paul Merson, “stank”. Leeds were missing their own game-changer, Willy Gnonto, and a recognised centre-forward with Javi Gracia seemingly casting his eye towards Palace on Tuesday and Forest next week. But the visitors were given plenty of encouragement for 35 minutes.

Then Luke Ayling had another Emirates episode. Sent-off for a brain-dead tackle last towards the end of last season that saw him miss the run-in, the Leeds defender, who came through the ranks at Arsenal, gifted his boyhood club a penalty.

Arsenal vs Leeds

It was a break for the hosts and one they gratefully seized upon. Jesus scored his first goal in exactly six months and Arsenal didn’t look back.

Jesus was key to a much improved hour, the majority of which was spent was in relative comfort after a two-goal blitz in the opening 10 minutes of the second half. Jesus’ brace sandwiched Ben White’s killer goal, but his movement highlighted an attacking dimension Arsenal have had to do without since the World Cup.

The Gunners have managed without him admirably. The momentum they’ve built up, matching City’s charge as they go around the final bend and the final straight comes into sight, will take some stopping. They go to Liverpool at Anfield next Sunday and on this evidence, at the Emirates and the Etihad, the Reds should anticipate another much-needed reminder of what relentless looks like.

Read more: Arteta admits Arsenal endured ‘concerning few days’ before Leeds win – ‘we had things going on’