On the one hand, this was exactly how to beat an opponent at their own game. On the other, it looked rather like how Mikel Arteta wishes Arsenal to be playing every week. They were relentless for the first hour here, smothering Leeds off the ball and dissecting them with a fizzing display of speed and invention on it.
Much of the case for defending Arteta during an autumn peppered with dour displays was that nobody with a serious handle on his outlook believed that was how he wanted his team to perform. He has a set of tools closer to his liking now and, while the manner in which their lead was halved offered a reminder that significant flaws linger, in the attacking department they set a standard he will now expect them to maintain.
It helped that three of their four goals came from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose hint at a post-Christmas revival had been cut short by an absence enforced by illness to his mother. While Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Ødegaard and the outstanding Bukayo Saka were a perpetual blur of industry and ideas, Aubameyang set the tone from up front and Arsenal are still twice the team when he is on song. This was his first start for nearly a month; he had scored a pair against Newcastle in his previous one and the signs are that the isolated, disconsolate figure of earlier this season may have been consigned to history.
“It’s been a tough time for me but now it’s time to get the smile back, win games and score goals,” Aubameyang said. He set about that within 13 minutes. Arsenal had already shown their intention to press ferociously and deny Leeds any chance to muster their usual swarming tempo. The first goal mixed guile with speed, Smith Rowe changing the complexion of a passing move by flipping a sharp pass to Granit Xhaka with an implicit instruction that the recipient should act with similar urgency. Xhaka promptly found Aubameyang, lurking in the inside-left position that facilitates most of his best work, and the rest was from the textbook. Jinking inside before befuddling Luke Ayling and Liam Cooper with a couple of stepovers, he cut a clever finish past the Leeds centre-backs and inside the near post of the unsighted Illan Meslier.
By half-time his grin was even wider, although that was not before a false start. Stuart Attwell awarded a penalty when Liam Cooper leaned into Saka but, to Arsenal’s fury and general perplexity, reversed his decision after running to the pitchside monitor for a VAR review. No matter: Saka was back five minutes later in a sequence that summed up the half.
Meslier had already diced with danger as Aubameyang chased a backpass; now he dithered after receiving another. Saka nipped straight in and it did not take a video replay to prove Meslier clipped him, escaping further punishment because the forward was heading away from goal. Aubameyang did the rest from the spot.
Héctor Bellerín scored the third from an angle after Dani Ceballos had played him through, Saka again influencing the buildup with a run across the box. Two minutes after the interval, Aubameyang had his first Premier League hat-trick. Leeds appeared to have dealt with Saka’s latest driving run but the substitute Hélder Costa was dispossessed by a pin-sharp Smith Rowe, whose cross to the far post was beautifully weighted for a straightforward header.
“He was superb today,” Arteta said of Aubameyang. “He’s been training very well in the last week or so, he was back to normal, he looked committed and really hungry. If he’s in that kind of form we’re going to be closer to winning football matches, that’s clear.”
For a while Arsenal did an impression of a side that did not know how to see the game out, allowing Leeds to set up a tense final 20 minutes through Pascal Struijk’s thudding header and a clipped finish from Costa. “At half-time I told them that if there is a team that can bounce back and still believe they can come here and beat us, that’s Leeds,” Arteta said, but overall Marcelo Bielsa’s side were below par and looked bereft in the centre without their linchpin, Kalvin Phillips.
“They knew how we were going to press and they resolved this; we knew how they were going to press us and we didn’t manage to resolve this,” Bielsa said of the tornado Leeds failed to handle in the first half. Arsenal will have less obliging visitors but such an insistent performance has set the bar.