Four games. Four wins. 12 points. 12 goals scored. Qualification from the Europa League group stages which means that for the final two games Arteta can rest some key players over a business period because unless Rapid win both of their games by scoring eight goals in the process, we should also top the group because of the goal difference too.
It was a night that was needed after a few weeks of pretty painful football if we’re all honest. Defeat at home to Villa, the torture of international football, a drab 0-0 against Leeds in which we were thoroughly outplayed and what felt like a mounting injury list, all led to a fair bit of doom and gloom amongst us. Whilst I think we will acknowledge the calibre of opposition was hardly elite – or even close to the type we face in the Premier League, this felt like welcome respite yesterday and although I’m sure we’ll see mass rotation again on Sunday for the visit of Wolves, my hope is that the first team squad as a whole are buoyed by the victory yesterday. I also hope it has given the manager some hope that we have a few players who could at least make the manager think about for the Premier League if certain aged Dubai-travelling Brazilians put in poor performances on the pitch.
Reiss Nelson, for example, was singled out for praise from Arteta who said last night that he has clicked in training in the last month and that is showing in his performances on the pitch. In the home game against Molde he was arguably one of the better players and I think last night him and Pepe were also one of the more effective players we had on the pitch against the Norwegians. Nelson was brave, he drove with the ball and he was happy to give and go. He also found a small bit of space in between the two defenders for his goal and so when Willock’s excellent pass from wide right found that cliched ‘corridor of uncertainty’, it was Nelson with the desire and drive to get there.
On Sunday I thought Nelson was unlucky because he didn’t get much time to impose himself on a Leeds side dominant in possession after the Pepe sending off, but I thought yesterday he made another case for himself being given more game time with his performance. Hopefully this gives Arteta food for thought because with the likes of Willian failing to deliver, players like Nelson have a very real opportunity to get more minutes.
Somebody who might also have staked a claim for another inclusion at the weekend was Nicolas Pepe, who I also thought was one of the stand out players on the pitch in Norway last night, bagging another fine goal in the process too. It was a really fine goal actually. Lurking at the back post his control to kill the ball dead effectively gave him a second to pick his spot and sweep the ball into the top of the net and when you’re in the heat of the moment you just celebrate, but when you watch it again it is one of those goals that looks ever more impressive. He may have been the villain on Sunday, but last night he made up for it in part I think. He was energetic, he covered spaces defensively, he hit the post, he played a part in the second goal with the ball to Willock and he troubled Molde all night. That was because we used him as you should. I watched a few times last night where Xhaka or Cedric played the ball to him early in space. Pepe is a player who wants space to run into and last night he got more of that than he’s had for most of the season. It is a shame he cannot play this weekend because I’m sure after that performance and the praise it drew from his manager he would be in with another shout.
So we had good performances from those two wide players, but there were a few that struggled last night, I thought. Arteta deployed Eddie up top and Lacazette in behind as a sort of number 10 role and whilst I wondered as we kicked off whether it would suit the Frenchman, by the end of the game I think it is obvious that it hadn’t worked because he’d not really influenced the game as a connector in that position should, bar a few good touches and a decent shot inside the box which forced their ‘keeper Linde to make a good save. I think the manoeuvring him in to that position instead of the centre forward role was telling about his long term future and I suspect we’re going to see less and less of him as his performances continue to sadly deteriorate.
Behind them I thought Xhaka was ok and tidy enough and Willock too, whereas the defence were never really troubled. The first half was standard Arsenal fair as we all know and it felt very underwhelming from an Arsenal point of view but then again we’re used to that by now, aren’t we? We’ll probably get the same against Wolves at the weekend I suspect.
But what we did get in that second half was an upping of the intensity. We controlled possession more, we had chances, we scored goals and were even able to bring on some of the young hopes in the squad in Balogun and Smith-Rowe. I thought both offered fine cameos and Balogun particularly, took his goal really well, because his first touch set him perfectly and the swivel was of somebody who has confidence in his own ability. You can tell he’s in fine form for the under-23s when you see him touch the ball like that. Will he make it at The Arsenal? Who knows. I guess that depends on whether he signs a new deal and is given a few more opportunities. I suspect he will be because there are two games coming up now in this competition in which Arteta can certainly rotate his team, so let’s wait and see next week if we get a few more youth team debutants getting some time on the pitch in the coming weeks.
There will of course be the caveats of who the opposition were, but I’m just delighted to see Arsenal win football matches and score goals. That’s why we all tune in and that’s what we got last night.
Catch y’all tomorrow. I suspect we’ll get some team news to chew over ahead of the Wolves game.