Arsenal's Nicolas Pépé sees red before Leeds hit woodwork three times in draw

All things being equal, Arsenal might have finished this absorbing contest feeling concerned that 476 minutes have now passed since their last top-flight goal from open play. Instead they were relieved to depart with a point after Nicolas Pépé was rightly sent off for a head butt, soft but illegal and thoroughly idiotic, on Ezgjan Alioski six minutes after half-time and the reality is that more clinical opponents would have taken advantage.

How this game finished goalless is anybody’s guess and Arsenal, for all they were put on the ropes towards the end of each half, had openings of their own. But Leeds, who hit the woodwork three times in the latter stages, will consider they ought to have won given the number of occasions they sliced through the visitors’ back line.

Both sides had hoped to clear the fog of inconsistency but neither lineup looked entirely familiar. In the injured Thomas Partey and the self-isolating Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal missed their midfield’s colossus and its conscience. Joe Willock received his first Premier League minutes of the season, and outwardly adding dynamism to rival that of the hosts’ engine room.

Leeds could be relieved at the return from injury of their own lynchpin, Kalvin Phillips, but found novelty value in a first start on the right wing for their October signing Raphinha. It was on the opposite flank that they created the game’s first significant opportunity, though, and perhaps Patrick Bamford could have made better use of the chance. Jack Harrison’s expertly-timed pass ushered Alioski to the byline and Bamford, under some pressure but only six yards from goal, stabbed the ball into Bernd Leno’s arms.

A dozen minutes had passed and Arsenal, for their part, had already shown intent via a Dani Ceballos sighter that flew past the post. The first half proceeded in predictably open vein, frayed and flawed but awash with good intentions, both sides showing an appetite to land blows but Leeds ultimately feeling they should have gone in ahead.

Arsenal’s best two moments both owed to further tweaks from Mikel Arteta. First Pépé, recalled to the starting lineup and appearing on the left, beat Luke Ayling and swirled over a cross that hit the crossbar instead of dipping under it. Then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, selected at centre-forward for the first time under Arteta in the hope that he might be played back into form, was offered the kind of half-chance that ends goal droughts on a good day. He slashed wide of the near post after good work from Ceballos, Pépé and Héctor Bellerín, and Leeds set about attempting to make him pay.

Patrick Bamford’s header beats Bernd Leno but hits the post.

Patrick Bamford’s header beats Bernd Leno but hits the post. Photograph: Richard Pelham/NMC/Pool

Bamford gave Leno a more exacting test on the half-hour when volleying instinctively after Ayling’s centre had bounced awkwardly off Gabriel. The keeper, partly unsighted, saved one-handed to his right but was able to look on shortly afterwards when a well-placed Stuart Dallas shot across goal. Leeds were now overloading the wings regularly and, two minutes before half-time, a beautiful move ended with Mateusz Klich lofting an Alioski cross over from a position that promised much more.

Regular students of Arsenal’s work would have detected more ambition in their passing, but the moments of sustained menace had emanated from Leeds. If Arteta had demanded more aggression during the break then presumably Pépé’s lily-livered interpretation was not what he had in mind. Alioski came out poorly from the incident, collapsing dramatically in the face of minimal contact.

But the salient point was that there had been contact at all, Pépé pushing his forehead into that of the Leeds left-back as the two jostled near the Leeds penalty area with the ball yards away. A VAR check told Anthony Taylor that the motion had been worthy of a red card and, while it barely registered as an act of violence, it was the kind of grievous error that does not help Pépé’s reputation as one of the most extravagantly unsuccessful signings in recent top-flight history.

Arteta immediately replaced Willock with Bukayo Saka. Initially Arsenal seemed unruffled and Aubameyang had the ghost of a chance when he spun but failed to connect properly. It took Leeds until the 64th minute to reprise their earlier incisiveness and, when they did, Leno came to the rescue again by pawing away Dallas’s rising drive.

They opened Arsenal up again when Ayling lost control, and wasted a shot at punishing his former club, after Raphinha had laid the ball on a plate. Ayling was instantly replaced by Rodrigo, who announced his arrival – and Marcelo Bielsa’s intent in making such an attacking change – by cutting in and shooting inches off target. He repeated the trick with 10 minutes left, leaving Leno standing but this time seeing his effort bounce off the top of the bar.

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The stage seemed set for a late charge but Arsenal’s threat had never quite evaporated and they could have stolen it when Saka, sent away from Bellerín, tried to round Illan Meslier but was thwarted by the keeper’s game-saving block. There was still time for Bamford to head against a post and Raphinha to clip the same upright, leaving Pépé to feel mightily thankful.