Arsenal beat Molde 4-1 in Thursday’s Europa League clash.
It became comfortable in the end, but it was another slow start from Arsenal in European competitions having fallen behind to a lovely goal from Martin Ellingsen.
Unafraid of what problems the hosts may pose, the Norwegian side were willing to push men forward and pass the ball around neatly in the latter end of the pitch, while keeping things tight in central areas when out of possession.
A frustrating night got the boost it needed for the Gunners just before half-time, with Joe Willock forcing an own-goal following a swift counter-attack from Molde’s corner.
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Some tactical tweaks at the break paid off for Arsenal, who came out with far more purpose in the second period and put their noses in front via another own-goal, once again forced by the impressive Willock.
From there it became a far smoother operation, as Molde’s need for a goal opened the spaces in behind for Arsenal to exploit. Nicolas Pepe grabbed the all-important third having found more space to operate in after the second strike, with Willock adding gloss to the scoreline with a late fourth.
The win puts Arsenal top of their group with nine points from nine available secured, with the next fixture in Europe coming on the 26th of November away at Thursday’s opponents Molde. As it is, they’re in a fine position to not only qualify, but finish top of the group.
Here’s three things we learned from the 4-1 win.
Joe Willock’s Critics Have to Start Turning
Whenever times were rough for Arsenal, whenever Mesut Ozil wouldn’t get picked or at almost all occasions where a win wasn’t forthcoming, it was Willock’s head on a spike.
Somehow becoming the fall guy when the rest of the side weren’t performing, his last two displays will have silenced his unjust hordes of critics.
He has a certain playing style that can go both ways. Arsenal are rightly critiqued for not showing enough willingness on the ball or guts to run beyond the last line of defence, the exact traits that Willock brings to the side.
If a daring ball doesn’t come off or he loses possession high up the pitch, he gets slaughtered. What is overlooked is that at least he’s trying to spark some life into what can often be a regimented style of play. Such daring on the ball will not come to fruition each time. When it does, however, it looks great.
Willock is great. Good physical frame, neat technical ability and intelligence in his movement, hopefully now there will be less unfounded harshness directed his way because he’s succeeding with his attacking motions.
Nicolas Pepe is a Player For Only Certain Situations
He had to be mentioned, didn’t he?
First off, he’ll get praise (rightly) for getting on the scoresheet and setting up another goal. His finish was well taken and the pass to Willock put him in a great spot to score.
But the ugly, frustrating side of his game persists. It was another weak, lifeless first half from the Ivorian who never beat his man, was muscled off the ball far too frequently and kept turning into a cul-de-sac each time he found possession down the right flank.
A switch to the left opened things up slightly more, but it wasn’t until Molde began committing men forward in search of a route back into the game where he showed his truer colours. With space to play in as well as space to find others, there was an air of comfort about the way he moved around the pitch. Suddenly he sparked into life.
Arsenal won’t play teams adopting such an approach every week. Arsenal likely won’t play sides adopting such an approach for the vast majority of the season.
When they do, or when they’ve got their noses in front, he’s wonderfully suited to that role. There is talent there. Real talent. It is, however, going to be a case of low-block after low-block for large periods. In those instances, he comes up frightfully short.
The ‘Starters’ Showed Why They’re in the First Team
From likely departee to Old Trafford destroyer, Elneny came on and immediately began playing progressive passes into the final third. Never before did we see him attempting such distribution, but it’s evidently an area of his game that Mikel Arteta has unearthed and allowed to flourish. The manner of his passing is noteworthy, too, as there is zip and aggression – coinciding with less overall touches – that make Arsenal a more flowing attacking side.
Then, of course, there is Bukayo Saka.
What little time he spent on the pitch was grasped with two hands, darting about the pitch and ripping into the Molde back four with incisive running and clever first touches.
It’s plain to see why he is a Premier League starter. A glorious talent that continues to improve. For me, that’s key above all: visibly seeing all elements of his game refined with each passing week.