Molde 0 – 3 Arsenal (Europa League Group Stages)
After our constipated recent outings in the Premier League, we once again used the Europa League to rediscover how to play attacking football: and the key factor was a good dose of the runs.
We passed and moved, passed and moved with positive intent for much of the game and, crucially, we did it with runners off the ball. A stark contrast with our EPL form where we pass and stand still, pass and stand still, pass back to the ‘keeper.
Overall it was an encouraging performance with good outings from some of the young starters and pleasing cameos.
As expected, Mikel Arteta made numerous changes from the team that ground out a dour nil-nil at Elland Road.
Runarsson started in goal again, David Luiz (back from celebrating the birth of his baby girl) and Mustafi were at CB, with Cedric and Maitland-Niles as the fullbacks. Xhaka, Willock and Nelson were in MF behind a front three of Pepe, Nketiah and Lacazette.
Although we ran out comfortable winners it was not all plain sailing and in the first half (just as in the fixture at the Emirates) Molde did pretty well and should have gone ahead when one of their players managed to miss an open goal tap-in in an embarrassing manner seldom seen before (although Gervinho away at Bradford comes to mind).
But the encouraging thing right from the start was the way Arsenal were prepared to play with attacking intent.
Our passes were forwards-looking, our players were making runs off the ball and were also remembering the “go” part of “give and go.”
Until the opening goal from Pepe, we looked positive, exciting and dangerous… except for our final decision making, where things invariably went wrong. Mistimed passes in the penalty area, failing to see the killer pass, wayward shots, inaccurate crosses… we were doing it all.
It was annoying but the mere fact we were playing attacking football made up for it to some extent.
The breakthrough came via Pepe on 50 minutes. Up until that point the Ivorian had been incredibly busy and involved, but was also a bit frustrating. Comments here on AA during the game referenced his apparent unwillingness to take the first time pass or first time shot. He always seems to want another couple of touches.
Pepe continued to be influential and industrious right to the end and I found myself reappraising his performance. The jury is very much out on him and he has been in the doghouse this week since his red card at Leeds. He has the burden of being our record signing. Also the ‘too many touches’ issue is definitely a thing.
But he had been threatening the Molde goal, particularly when cutting in from the right and shooting with his left. His first attempt went a few feet wide. His second hit the woodwork, but by his third attempt he’d obviously got his range right and we were one up.
Often we football fans have to overcome our positive bias (every trip on one of our players should be a red card, every trip on of theirs is just a ‘coming together’), but we also need to overcome negative biases as well. When the narrative around a player turns sour, even his good qualities can be unfairly dismissed. So to be clear, Pepe was very good last night.
If I imagine that performance having been put in by, say, Raheem Sterling, people would be raving about how good it was.
Willock and Nelson also had excellent outings, Runarsson did not have a huge amount to do but what he had, he did well. Nketiah was busy and hard working but did not stand out as much as some of the other youngsters.
The biggest disappointment on the night was Lacazette, who (one suspects) was in the team to try and get his goal scoring rhythm kick started. On last night’s showing he should be nowhere near the first team on Sunday.
Two of our young stars combined for our second goal, Willock crossing for Nelson to fire home from the six yard box.
The icing on the cake came late on, with the arrivals of Emile Smith-Rowe (whom many of us had hoped would start) and Folarin Balogun. ESR showed some impressive touches and passing range and made our third with a neat pass for 19-year-old Balogun who turned well and fired home for his first senior Arsenal goal.
So we have 12 points from 12 and are more or less certain to top our group.
The Europa League continues to provide enjoyment in an up and down season.
And several of the young players are now very clearly knocking on El Patron’s door to be included as regulars in our Premier League starting line-up.
The million dollar question is whether we can convert the attacking-mindedness of our EL form into our EPL games.
Runarsson – 7
Did all that was asked of him
Cedric – 7
I have my doubts about Ced but he was pretty decent last night.
Mustafi – 7
Nothing to dislike about the German’s performance.
Luiz – 7
Replaced at half time by Holding, presumably for an injury. Was comfortable until that point.
Maitland-Niles – 7.5
I would like to see AMN used more in our EPL campaign. He seems to have matured considerably since last season.
Xhaka – 7.5
Sat deep, worked very hard and allowed the more progressive-minded midfielders to do their stuff.
Willock – 8
He started our last league game and should be in the 11 for Sunday after this performance.
Nelson – 8
How he’s not being started ahead of Willian is a complete mystery. Nelson has bags of skill and looks strong and decisive. More first team minutes please Mikel.
Lacazette – 6
It’s just not happening for the Frenchman at the moment.
Nketiah – 6.5
Things didn’t really go his way and his opportunities to make an impact were limited.
Pepe – 8.5 (MoTM)
Notwithstanding some issues with dwelling on the ball too long, Pepe was by far the biggest influence on last night’s outcome.
Holding – 7
Played all the second half and was comfortingly reliable.
Ceballos – 7
Came on at 62 minutes and slotted in well.
Tierney – 7
Who doesn’t love Tesco?
Smith-Rowe – 7.5
Positive cameo including an assist.
Balogun – 7.5
Well done son, may that be the first of many, many first team goals for the Arse.