Problems mounting up for Leeds United and Jesse Marsch

“Against the best opponents you have to be really, really good on the day,” warned Jesse Marsch before his Leeds United team headed to Arsenal.

Five minutes in, Illan Meslier dwelt on a Luke Ayling pass a couple of yards off his goalline and Eddie Nketiah tackled him to open the scoring.

After 11 minutes Raphinha was beaten far too easily down the right and nobody thought to get close to former Leeds loanee Nketiah before Gabriel Martinelli’s pull-back picked him out to score the second.

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Then, after 28 minutes, Leeds’s captain for the day Ayling marked his 500th career appearance by launching into a brainless two-footed tackle on the Brazilian, trying to win a ball that was anyway going out. Chris Kavanagh somehow thought it was only worth a yellow card until video assistant referee John Brooks suggested he go and have another look on the pitchside monitor.

Leeds United goalkeeper Illan Meslier reacts following Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah pounced on a mistake to score. Picture: PA

Forget the fact that Everton were leading, the visitors were an alarming mess going into the final three matches of the season. With the first team dropping into the bottom three on the day the under-23s were relegated, it was a pretty miserable afternoon all round.

Marsch loves to praise the leaders in his dressing room but it did not say much that it had to wait until he got his players in there at half-time for Leeds to get over Meslier’s early mistake and play with maturity and determination. That said, once Liam Cooper’s knee left him on the sidelines and with Stuart Dallas, Adam Forshaw and Patrick Bamford also injured and Rodrigo on the bench, Ayling’s stupidity left Kalvin Phillips as the only member of the “leadership council” on the field.

It made his impending season-ending suspension even more frustrating. It was actually a triple whammy because Joe Gelhardt was substituted half-an-hour into his first start since Christmas, pushing Dan James from No 10 back into the lone centre-forward position he looked to have finally escaped. Other jobs James took on included right winger-cum-wing-back, postman when Marsch wanted a note passing to Phillips, draft excluder at a free-kick Martin Odegaard floated gently into the hands of Meslier and sweeper as Arsenal tried to break away from a 90th-minute corner Leeds had rightly sent Meslier up to attack.

Lewis Bate, a 19-year-old midfielder who came off the bench at half-time for only his second Premier League appearance was admirable, but should not have been shouldering the burden.

Diego Llorente of Leeds United scores their side's consolation goal. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

When Bate helped Leeds to match the defiance being shown in the away end, where those fans without scarves twirled the free T-shirts in support of Dallas the club had left on most but not all of their seats, it gave the scoreline a veneer of respectability. But spirit shown too late is not worth much.

Even then it was more a case of hold on and hope, and as much to do with Arsenal’s nerves as Leeds’s qualities that scoring from their first of only two efforts on target kept the game interesting. To only lose 2-1 was highly flattering.

Marsch did his level best to put a positive spin on things, saying “We have to not feel sorry for ourselves” with out-of-sorts Chelsea in town on Wednesday.

Without meaning to, he was damning about Meslier, describing the rest of his goalkeeper’s performance as “quite good.” Praise had been any fainter would have been invisible.

Bate was introduced at half-time because Mateusz Klich could not be trusted to stay on after being booked for a tackle from behind on Granit Xhaka as Leeds lost their composure. Junior Firpo - now their last full-back standing - conceded a free-kick for shoving Bukayo Saka over after just 98 seconds, the first of a few fouls as he struggled to contain the winger.

Raphinha was booked for dissent - quite what his argument was would be fascinating to know - as Kavanagh came across to upgrade Ayling’s card, and substituted with half an hour to go and two goals needed. Leeds’s goal difference is so awful to be not worth protecting but their most talented player was ineffective enough they thought they were more likely to score twice without him.

One half-time number told the story fairly accurately: Arsenal 11 shots, Leeds nil.

Odegaard hit the crossbar from a free-kick and another Firpo foul on Saka just the right side of the area from a Leeds perspective saw Meslier get a hand to the Norwegian’s spinning shot but not a strong enough one that Diego Llorente did not have to keep it out of the goal.

The half-time break seemed to focus Leeds minds and take the sting out of Arsenal, who played even more around Leeds’s final third, minus the previous intensity. Genuine heavyweights would have been rougher with them.

“And then,” said Gunners manager Mikel Arteta, “the accident happened.”

Firpo flicked on a corner for Llorente to tap in, and nerves jangled. “Forwards! Forwards!” came desperate cries from supporters around the press box.

Breakwaway set-pieces were Leeds’s only real weapon but Raphinha’s replacement Rodrigo headed a free-kick at Aaron Ramsdale in the fourth added minute. For Leeds to have got anything out of a game they were so awful in for 45 minutes would have been just plain wrong.

Ayling’s suspension has ensured this game will have a knock-on effect but the challenge facing Leeds is to keep them a minimum.