Morning all and welcome to the gateway to the weekend: Friday.
These Friday’s have become familiar to us, when we have to digest and dissect a game last night in the Europa League and thankfully, for the second week in a row, it is a victory that we are thinking about. Dundalk were dispatched with a 3-0 win at The Emirates and really if we’re honest you can’t ask for more than that. Especially given how much rotation Arteta started with and we’ll get to individual performances in a sec. But first and foremost the most important thing is the win and ultimately it was a comprehensive victory for The Arsenal. Winning is good. I like winning.
Of course there are those that feel like games like this need to have a massive asterisk put beside them because of the opposition, so in some respects, I have a bit of sympathy for MIkel Arteta and his team. I’m not sure he could have done anything last night that would have resulted in universal approval. Simply because of the opposition. If we’d have beaten a deep-lying, low-block, Dundalk team by 7-0 then there would have been people calling them a bunch of farmers. But as was mentioned on the commentary I was watching last night, this team has won their respective league something like five out of the last six seasons, they are all professionals and as such, they are not simply going to get battered.
I also think – although I admit I didn’t for the first 30 minutes – that playing against teams who are essentially there to sit and frustrate for the whole evening, isn’t a simple equation of our technical ability + your lack of it = massive win. Football is not linear and there are so many variables in a match that mean that it is never going to go exactly to plan. So with that in mind what you need to do is secure victory in this type of game and we did just that.
Arteta named an almost completely rotated side which, if I’m honest, I was delighted about. I wanted to see if some of our squad players could step up but as well as that, if they did, a big win would help them all to get a little bit of confidence should they be called upon in the ‘bigger’ games in our season. Mikel went for Runarsson in goal, a back line (I’m reluctant to say ‘three’ because we change whether in and out of possession as you know) which included Cedric, Mustafi, Kolasinac, Xhaka at times and Maitland-Niles on the left hand side, then in front of them we saw Elneny and the excellent Joe Willock, with a forward line of Nketiah, Pepe and Nelson flanking him. It was an acknowledgement that we need to conserve some legs for Sunday because the team will surely almost completely change for then too I suspect.
So I was more than happy with that, but I don’t think any of us would have been 100% happy with the first 30 minutes. We looked like we were struggling to create chances, to get in behind a very deep Dundalk back line who were packed in almost like a seven at times and I think our lack of creativity showed. What I did see was the team trying to get Pepe on the ball as much as possible and I think that was a good thing. It was a clear instruction to involve him more and he put a couple of decent balls in during that first half, but he was reduced to just that with their low block.
Normally by about 40 minutes those of us in the stadium would be starting to get a tad frustrated, so we do have a certain Mr Rogers in goal to thank for gifting us the lead. A ball swung in that he didn’t deal with fell to the feet of Eddie into the box and whilst he’d missed what felt like a gilt-edged chance moments before, he bagged the second bite of the cherry and we were one up.
And I think even then Dundalk knew the game was up. They had little of the ball in our final third and knew they wouldn’t be able to open us up too much because it would create space for players like Pepe and Nelson, so it was damage limitation as soon as that first goal went in. Then when the second goes in just minutes afterwards, you know that the game is done and again they would have sat down for their halftime oranges with the manager telling them “stay compact, stay tight, we don’t want a pasting here”.
Which is how the second half unfolded really. Aside from very early on in the half when the ball fell to Pepe and he lashed on in from the edge of the box with his weaker foot. It was a fine finish, but what made the finish was his control, little roll of the ball over his foot to create a yard of space, then with very little back lift hitting it into the top corner.
Pepe was one of our better players on the night and that he was taken off on the hour mark gives me hope that we might see him on Sunday against United. He will have more space to run in that game because he’ll be playing an opponent that will want to come out and cause us more trouble than Dundalk did and that will give him space. So I’m pleased that he will have got some confidence from that performance.
But there were a few others who will also have taken a lot of heart from the display. I thought Reiss Nelson was very good, quick, driving past his man with consummate ease at times and perhaps should have had a goal to add to the impressive performance. Sometimes he has such a worried look on his face when he plays but I hope this gives him some cause for optimism and happiness tonight because he did well.
As too did Joe Willock, who was probably our best player. He got a very good goal to make it number two for us for the evening, but aside from that, he was imperious. He was gliding past whoever he was up against, his driving runs helped to create space for his teammates and it was this kind of display that we started to see just as he broke in to the first team. He hasn’t been near the side for the last four or five months but this kind of display will have his manager thinking. He won’t have to step up like that too many times before he finds himself starting in the Premier League, that’s for sure.
Overall this was a ‘job done’ performance. There’s no point talking about the debutant Runarsson because apart from a smart stop in the first half that he palmed away, he had very little to do. Likewise for the back line although I will admit to being pretty underwhelmed by Cedric yet again. I know he is just reserve choice at the club, but his signing continues to baffle and I suspect will continue to do so for some time.
But let’s not dwell on any negatives after we’ve just picked up another win in Europe and sit top of the group with Molde to play at home next week. A win there puts us in the driving seat for qualification and hopefully we can get that sewn up sooner rather than later.
Catch you all tomorrow with some early pre-United thoughts.