Arsenal secured their place in the Europa League knockout stages with a 3-0 win over Molde on Thursday.
As they say, exactly what the doctor ordered. Arsenal weren’t at their fluent best in the first half but some tactical tweaks paid off and the end result was a deserved one.
Reiss Nelson came closest in the first half to nudging the visitors in front only to be denied by the legs of Andreas Linde. It was the hosts who had the best chance of the half, with Sheriff Sinyan miraculously missing the target with the net gaping, as his effort went across goal before being palmed away by Alex Runarsson.
Having efforts without looking overly threatening, Arsenal were relying too heavily on individual moments to find the back of the net, all of which changed after the break. Greater progression from back to front resulted in Mikel Arteta’s side posing a threat from all angles, with Nicolas Pepe bending in a fine effort from inside the box before Nelson slammed home from close range.
Youngsters Emile Smith Rowe and Folarin Balogun entered the fray late on and the pair combined to set up the latter to score his first senior goal for Arsenal.
Qualification assured, three points in the bag and a clean sheet. A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Here’s what we learned from Thursday night.
Reiss Nelson Has Never Been More Ready for the Premier League
It’s been a topic of debate with Reiss Nelson: is the better suited down the right or the left? Naturally, being right-footed would indicate the former. As seen at the Aker Stadion on Thursday, his ability with both feet when cutting in from that left flank strongly suggest otherwise.
Being ‘ready’ for the Premier League is one thing, being given the perfect opportunity to prove that is another. With Nicolas Pepe’s absence for the next three top-flight fixtures, Nelson can justify the hype that surrounds his talent.
Tidy technical ability and aggressive runs make him a snug fit for the league, and he’s bulked up considerably over the past year, looking distinctly more physically strong to deal with the demands of the division.
A solid display against Molde rings all the right bells, with Arteta’s hands surely tied in the sense that he must start against Wolves. Whether it’s him on the left and Willian on the right – whatever – his explosive ability is what Arsenal are craving at this minute.
Nicolas Pepe Has Channeled That Red Card in the Right Way
Many are, by now, sick of this conversation. Pepe does something well, then something really badly, talk of consistency crops up and then arguments starts over whether or not he’s finally clicking into gear.
Key to note that tonight was just *one* match, but it was evidence of all the elements of his game coming together and looking as sharp as they have. The caveat of it ‘only being Molde’ will be thrown about, but this was as consistent of a performance as we’ve seen from Pepe in a single match this season.
Consistency, of course, is what you need over the course of many matches. Where we are with Pepe though, we must start seeing it throughout a 90-minute stretch. That’s exactly what we got. He had an excellent evening.
Even the trivial aspects such as his corners were improved. Above all, he had a smile on his face. Very Anthony Martial in that respect, we rarely see him grin unless a goal has been scored. Even then it isn’t always forthcoming.
The system suits him far greater, too. Playing on the right of a 4-2-3-1, he’s granted the space to run into as well as drift across diagonally, not tied to the demands of hugging the touchline throughout. Yes, of course, again, this is one match and Molde were happy to commit men, but still, one game at a time.
Long Ball Arsenal Had Little Joy
David Luiz was most guilty of this during the first half. At times where he wasn’t under great pressure, his decision to hoof the ball long would isolate the forwards in wide areas on the occasions they gathered possession.
Rob Holding came on, someone whose range of pass is not as good, and Arsenal progressed up the pitch with more intent. This approach has paid little dividends in the Premier League, but the addition of Joe Willock attacking the inside right channels opened up greater spaces for the wide players to exploit, which they did to great effect.
The driving runs he made and forward passes into those areas were vastly more dangerous, predominantly because they were risky. Such balls were apparently banished from Elland Road where everything was to feet instead of gathered on the move. Natural width – not forced overloads – provide Arsenal with better options to play through the thirds.
How this plays off against low-blocks is another matter but it’s a welcome change to see an Arsenal side play with such fluidity.
Arsenal Youngsters Outshining Senior Stars
How wonderful it was to see Emile Smith Rowe and Folarin Balogun come on and make an impact. The former teed the latter up for Arsenal’s third of the night, a goal which prompted a collective hugging of the television screen from all supporters.
The next two Europa League matches will be heavily focussed around these two. Smith Rowe, now healthy and fit, has to start both, while Balogun can’t do any more to warrant a starting berth against either Rapid Vienna or Dundalk. Or indeed both.
What it does show, however, is that the talent Arsenal have coming through the youth ranks poses questions of the senior players. Alexandre Lacazette, operating in a No. 10 role, did okay, yet the need to field him in that position comes across more as a means to play him rather than a genuine tactic to win the match. It worked, of course, but he’s not technically able or nimble enough to perform that role and it certainly isn’t a long-term solution.
In Smith Rowe, there is a Hale End starlet who is vying for that spot with zero competition in his way, while Balogun showed the willingness and mobility to play on the shoulder of the defender and stretch defences.
While we’re a considerable way off Balogun starting Premier League matches, continuing in this vein starts to ask questions of those who are faltering in the top-flight. These ‘kids’ are showing their mettle. Senior players, take note.