(A) Gabi is nobody’s fool (01/04/23) – Leeds game preview
I was ‘accused’ to be overoptimistic with my take on the Palace game. And perhaps I was, but not on a general notice. I happen to be quite pessimistic on our visit on Anfield and the Etihad, but at the moment I’m not worried about hosting Leeds later today.
I’m expecting a comfortable win of 3:0. And no, it has nothing to do with today being All Fool’s Day. We have a really strong team, the motivation is excellent and the team morale is flying high. Furthermore we have defeated them at Elland Road in mid-October, even though I have to admit that we didn’t necessary deserve those 3 points, being one of those few games that we used to lose in the past seasons. Yet, Arteta managed to turn that around somehow staking our claim for the title after a hiatus of more than a decade.
But we will be playing in front of a home crowd this time, and even though Leeds has collected 7 points from their last 4 games we are on a 6 victory streak already; and if we win today the 7 in a row will be a PL record for Arteta – however we would be still halfway from our 2002 run of 14 consecutive victories. Anyway, we are in good form, but to be fair only Fulham was in the top half of the table (hence my limited enthusiasm before the Liverpool game).
However, there are a few more reasons to be not to be worried. Saliba’s injury didn’t come at a good time (they never do), but Holding deputized him quite aptly. We avoided further injuries in the break, but that’s something Leeds couldn’t say about their players. They lost Tyler Adams, their best DM, and Leeds will miss Wilfried Gnonto from attacking midfield, too. Liam Cooper is back in action, and he has formed a decent partnership with Robin Koch, but they are far from invincible.
Their highest valued player is the Austrian AM Aronson, but his transfer price made a bigger impact on his (TransferMarkt) market value than his 3 goal contributions this season. Their have 3 in-form players at the moment in my opinion. Pascal Struijk is an underrated left back, a big fella with proper skills. He could and will make our RW life difficult, I’m afraid. Rodrigo is past 32, yet scored as many goals this season as the next 4 combined. He doesn’t have a strong presence in the penalty box, but his hold up play is decent, and the former Valencia hitman has a deadly left foot. His 11 goals against a 7.32 xG shows a clinical, efficient striker (+3.62) making him #6 behind Maddison, Phoden, Martinelli, Haaland and Almiron. But I expect our CBs to defend properly, as he has made only a single assist the entire PL campaign, so they should expect a shot rather than a through ball. That leaves us with former Liverpool, Manchester United and City rambler Harrison, who made 13 goal contributions this year, including 6 assist in the PL and further 3 in the FA Cup. If our boys can eliminate Jack, the game will be much easier. I expected to write more on their best player, but apparently the summer signing Sinisterra didn’t hit the ground running, and the Columbian is having an underwhelming debut season even with his injuries taken into consideration.
Leeds is dangerous at corners – scoring 7 (20%) of their 35 goals – but equally vulnerable there (conceding 6). They play in the same 4-2-3-1 formation Arsenal do, I think that will suit us. They really enjoy taking long shots. I expect a few today, but I think Ramsdale will be up to the challenge. Our boys will have to kill the game by scoring the third goal. Not only for the sake of entertainment, but Leeds has a strong track record of coming back from losing positions.
I will say something provocative, but I would give Saka the day off. He is in great form, but the Liverpool game is coming, and visiting West Ham isn’t a walk in the park either. He played 175 minutes in the interlull, I wouldn’t risk an injury in a game that we are favourite to win without him. Moreover, even if he plays, I don’t expect him to continue his current form. It is not easy to maintain anyway, and not many wingers have filed days against Strujk. So I would give the opportunity to Nelson. But whatever decision Mikel will made I take my chances and forecast our Gabis dominating the game, scoring at least a couple between/among them. Expecting Martinelli becoming MotM is the safer bet, but Jesus scoring would be a welcome surprise and a confidence booster nonetheless.
History is at our side. In the last 3 years, Leeds made a single point out of 7 games, and even that 0:0 draw took place on the road; and the last home defeat was 19 years ago. We have a great momentum (6 straight wins against inferior opponents), but the boys are yet to prove if the international break didn’t impair their concentration. Leeds won by 2:4 against 9-men Wolverhampton last round, but to be fair they have already scored 3 when the first Wolf – Jonny – was sent off. However this was their second away win this season, and I don’t expect today being the third.
Leeds is not facing a relegation battle just yet – with 26 points they are 2 above the relegation trio. Maybe they are yet to fight for their lives. However, I don’t expect them to stay up in the first tier. I know this is not about my PL predictions, but I see more reserve and provision in West Ham, Leicester, Nottingham or Everton.
Finally, let’s talk about the referee. Darren England hasn’t officiated a single game for us this season, but he was in charge of our season defining defeat against Newcastle last May. However, I think we played pretty bad on our own accord, at least I don’t remember major mistakes from his side. England is not a card bully – issuing only 2 reds in 19 games – but the 6 penalties are slightly alarming.
All in all I expect an entertaining April Fool’s Day afternoon, ending on a positive note, featuring a Holding-Gabriel partnership, 3+ goals, a clean sheet, miracles from Jesus, and a cameo from Smith-Rowe. I would really like to see Nelson play (and start), but I don’t expect it.
Let’s go and collect the last low hanging 3 point before the going gets tough!
By Peter Barany