I sometimes need to remind myself that this is the Premier League. Not just because we’re fundamentally watching the same players do the same things, but because my expectations don’t seem to have changed.
Having sat through 90 minutes of nail-biting dominance where Leeds continually failed to capitalise on the pressure exerted over their meek opposition, it was so reminiscent of the previous two seasons that my emotions weren’t at all tempered by the fact that it was Arsenal at Elland Road rather than Barnsley.
If you overlook the finer details it’s certainly easy to understand. Patrick Bamford would move brilliantly and take-up amazing positions, but not be found by wasteful final balls. Gjanni Alioski – a notoriously unpredictable human – would get within 30 yards of goal before predictably firing a shot high and wide in lieu of better options. We’d cross over and over again to no avail, yet find ourselves dangerous when playing through the middle in congested triangles – but learn nothing from this and revert to ineffective crosses again.
If you squint your eyes you realise that it’s Raphinha on the wing, flapping his unusually long legs in clever ways and looking a level above what we’re familiar with. You realise that Ben White isn’t Ben White at all, but a German International hell-bent on playing the perfect key pass, whether it’s on or not. And then you realise that you’re not watching Conor Chaplin but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
So it’s hard to check your instincts when it’s all the same, but different. Everything we did was nearly perfect. We dominated possession, we had an absurd amount of attempts on their goal and it was clear that we were frustrating Arteta’s men into silly reactions. It’ll never not be amusing to me that the decision was made for Alioski to man-mark Pepe – an individual with a few disciplinary problems being handcuffed to the most loveably annoying footballer in existence. Perhaps the surprise is that Pepe is the first player to be sent off for assaulting the Macedonian man-child.
For all the talk of dominance, the familiar looming sense of dread was ever-present. For every missed opportunity the probability of Arsenal disappearing up the other end of the pitch and scoring grew. Not just because of their propensity to do just that, but our incredible ability to enable such injustice. Were it not for the brilliance of Meslier, this exact scenario would have played out yet again – though whether it was excellent goalkeeping or just Saka running out of breath by trying to go around the 60ft tall French goalkeeper, I’m not sure.
I’m left having to force myself to remember that this is the Premier League. The perilous truth in that statement is that the margins at this level are so fine. From the way VAR is applied to the number of chances you’re afforded to score, there’s very little room for error. A slightly clumsy challenge will often be overlooked in the Championship whereas the punishing eagle-eyes of VAR seek to temper with the game in any way possible. Hitting the woodwork 3 times in the Championship often meant you won anyway, whereas here it doesn’t. Leeds were so good that a matter of centimetres prevented it from being a 3-0 battering instead of a deflating 0-0.
Which is awful against Barnsley… but we’re sat here feeling dejected because we dominated Arsenal in only our 9th game in the top flight in 16 years. That’s progress, whether it feels like it or not.