Man City put Arsenal on notice in Prem race as Grealish finally steps up, Leeds lack bite
5: 20 PM ET
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
LEEDS, England — Erling Haaland became the first player to score 20 Premier League goals in a season before January by hitting two against his hometown team Leeds on Wednesday as Manchester City won 3-1 at Elland Road.
With league leaders Arsenal beating West Ham on Monday, it was crucial that City maintained the pressure on Mikel Arteta’s Gunners with a win against Jesse Marsch’s Leeds.
Rodri‘s opener and Haaland’s double were enough to seal the three points before Pascal Struijk headed in a late consolation goal for Leeds.
JUMP TO: Player ratings | Best/worst performers | Highlights & notable moments | Post-game quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures
1. Man City put Arsenal on notice for title race
Manchester City made a winning start to their post-World Cup Premier League campaign and sent a clear warning to league-leaders Arsenal that the Citizens are ready to mount a surge for the title in the second half of the season.
Having suffered a 2-1 defeat at home to Brentford in their final game before the shutdown for Qatar 2022, City had fallen five points behind the Gunners in second place on the Premier League table.
But with Pep Guardiola’s team attempting to become only the fifth club in English football history to win three successive titles — Huddersfield, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United (twice) are the only clubs to do so — City responded to Arsenal’s 3-1 win against West Ham two days ago by beating Leeds comfortably. City will still face Arsenal twice in the Premier League. However, the odds are in City’s favor due to their greater experience and depth.
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The win at Leeds underlined City’s title-winning pedigree with Guardiola’s players patiently waiting for the breakthrough after failing to take a series of first-half chances. Rodri‘s goal in first-half stoppage time was the key moment before Erling Haaland struck twice in the second half to make the game safe before Pascal Struijk replied for Leeds.
City has been down the title path so many times in recent years that they are familiar with what it takes to win. Arsenal, without a title since 2004, are in unknown territory with Arteta and his players all striving to win their first title.
But with City winning so comfortably against Leeds, Arsenal will have got the message that they must overcome a formidable rival to end their long wait to be champions again.
2. Grealish frustrates for City, but persistence pays off
Jack Grealish registered his first assists of the season in all competitions for Manchester City when he teed up Erling Haaland for the team’s second and third goals at Elland Road, and they were positive moments that the 27-year-old earned the hard way.
Grealish, still the most expensive English player of all time following his PS100 million transfer from Aston Villa in 2021, has struggled for consistency during his time at the Etihad, and his first half against Leeds encapsulated his City career to date.
The England winger was at the heart of everything, good and bad, as City pushed forward in search of an opening goal, and he missed three clear chances to score in the opening 45 minutes. There were also delays, runs by teammates that Grealish failed to spot, and a series challenges by Leeds defenders who regularly crossed the line.
Few players get as many free kicks than Grealish. This is because he draws so many fouls, but it can be difficult to be targeted so often.
By half-time, Grealish had lost his appetite for the ball. However, he continued to persevere and was rewarded with two assists for Haaland.
Pep Guardiola will argue that Grealish needs to do more and do it consistently, but nobody can question the player’s determination.
3. Aaronson given an impossible task for Leeds
Brenden Aaronson must have groaned inside when Leeds manager Jesse Marsch asked him to play in a false nine role against Manchester City.
The USA midfielder is no striker — physically he just doesn’t match up to City defenders John Stones and Manuel Akanji — and his best role is attacking from midfield or from the right wing.
But with Leeds hit by injuries and leading forward Patrick Bamford still not fit, Aaronson was given the impossible job of trying to make life difficult for City and, at the same time, even attempt to get on the scoresheet.
Aaronson isn’t lacking in effort. However, he looked completely out-of-place in a role that was unfamiliar to him and he took advantage of the opportunity.
Still, the former FC Salzburg forward can’t be blamed for his team’s lack of cutting edge against the champions. He didn’t have enough tools to solve City’s problems.
Italy international Wilfried Gnonto was Leeds’ biggest threat with his trickery and pace down the left, but without a target man to aim for, Gnonto’s work came to nothing.
Leeds United: Illan Meslier 6; Rasmus Kristensen 6, Robin Koch 6, Liam Cooper 6, Pascal Struijk 5; Sam Greenwood 6, Marc Roca 5, Adam Forshaw 6; Rodrigo 5, Brenden Aaronson 5; Wilfried Gnonto 7.
Subs: Luke Ayling 6, Mateusz Klich 6, Joe Gelhardt 6, Diego Llorente 6, Darko Gyabi 6.
Manchester City: Ederson 6; Rico Lewis 7, John Stones 7, Manuel Akanji 6, Nathan Ake 7; Ilkay Gundogan 7, Rodri 7; Riyad Mahrez 7, Kevin De Bruyne 6, Jack Grealish 8; Erling Haaland 7.
Subs: Joao Cancelo 6, Phil Foden 6, Cole Palmer 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Jack Grealish, Man City
It doesn’t always happen for Grealish, but his perseverance paid off at Elland Road with a match-winning second-half performance.
WORST: Pascal Struijk, Leeds United
Scored a late goal for Leeds, but the full-back was at centre of every calamitous situation that his defence experienced — and there were plenty of them!
Highlights and notable moments
After a relatively tight first 45 minutes in which each side failed to put away chances, Leeds United looked to be headed for the break with a chance against a team 12 places higher on the Premier League table. But Rodri scored just before the halftime break.
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 28, 2022
After the break, Man City picked up where they left off, with Jack Grealish capitalising on a mistake at the Leeds’ back to gift Erling Haaland a tap-in on goal.
Down 2: Leeds appeared to be out of the race, much to the dismay and surprise of manager Jesse Marsch.
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) December 28, 2022
Haaland then scored his second, to put Man City up 3-0, but Leeds didn’t give up.
Pascal Struijk pulled one back for the home side in the 73rd minute off a corner kick. Unfortunately, the home team lost.
— Premier League USA (@PLinUSA) December 28, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch on whether he had hope once Leeds pulled one back: “The thing we know about our team is that we never quit. The timing of the goals was unfortunate. If we can get to the half, maybe we can make some adjustments and push the game. In many moments, I thought — it was Man City, in many aspects for me the greatest team in the world with one the best coaches in world, so you can’t contain them completely, but I thought that we did a pretty decent job. “
Marsch on the balance of needing to learn hard lessons but getting the points to stay up: “That’s the challenge. (laughs). First, our fans expect us to be a top-level Premier League team. They want a winner. It is so competitive that every moment of every game is crucial. Our ability to focus and be disciplined, play the way we want, and still have intensity and play with high quality in all phases — this is a huge challenge. I challenge them to improve and grow. It’s also a huge challenge for me as a manager, to find ways against the top teams and best coaches in order to help us become the best we can be. “
Man City forward Erling Haaland on his reaction when he misses a chance to score: “To be honest, I get really pissed. That’s the truth. But I want to score more even if I miss. It’s funny, because when I score one, I feel so happy that I want to score more. “
Haaland on Man City adapting to his style of play rather than the other way around: “It’s a fantastic first half-year to work with Pep and work with such amazing players, and not only the coaching staff and the players but the medical staff has been working so good for me to fix my body. Although I have had some minor problems, it is improving and it’s been a pleasure to work with these guys to improve my game. Everyone has their own opinions about how you fit into this team, but what can you do? I can’t do nothing about that. I have to do my job. “
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Erling Haaland is the first player in Premier League history with 20 goals before January. He’s also the fastest, by appearances (14), to score 20 Premier League goals.
Rodri scored his first goal in all competitions for Man City this season. He hadn’t scored since May 22 against Aston Villa.
Leeds United: The Peacocks have a quick turnaround for a New Year’s Eve face-off at Newcastle at 10 a.m. ET on Dec. 31.
Manchester City: The Citizens also have a quick turnaround for a New Year’s Eve date, hosting Everton at 10 a.m. ET on Dec. 31.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.