Winning is always nice and last night was no exception but in the kindest possible way, Dundalk are a Championship-level team at best (which makes the fact they’ve won the League of Ireland 4 of the last 5 seasons all the more eye-opening).
While I continue to loathe everything about the Europa League group stages, from the shame of playing on a Thursday to the extensive mileage travelling to the far corners of Europe just to play against teams with high-scoring Scrabble names, Dundalk were another team to be dispatched. There’s a caveat in there, because they needed to be dispatched with the least possible impact on our first team to protect them for a Sunday clash with United. This meant we had to delve into our centre-back collection and call upon Mustafi and to make sure he didn’t go astray against the might of Dundalk, Granit Xhaka was stuck next to him. They were also flanked by Sead Kolasinac and Portugal’s answer to Sead Kolasinac for that added peace of mind.
In hindsight, Arteta needn’t have bothered and could have probably played with a back 3, one of being Rúnar Rúnarsson who played most of the game like a 5-a-side sweeper keeper. It was the kindest of ties to ease him into the team and was rarely called upon except a few long-range efforts from Dundalk’s pluckier sorts. We didn’t get to see if his worrying record at Dijon is indicative of his actual ability, but if it’s any consolation, he wasn’t lying about his self-described strengths in his Welcome video with some good distribution.
We also have his opposite number to thank for bringing an end to our frustrations. I’m sure Eddie’s recce on the opposition had already left him feeling optimistic but when you’re facing a 39-year-old goalkeeper that looks like an accountant (and who also moonlights in Gaelic football), there’s always a chance for fumbles like last night’s. It was also exactly what we expect from Eddie:
There were two players I was especially keen to see in Nelson and Willock, because for whatever reason, they seem to have fallen by the wayside this season. They were both victims of burden in the darkest days of last season, often being tasked with responsibilities well beyond their years and they unsurprisingly weren’t up to the task. They were also comfortably above the likes of Saka, Martinelli and Nketiah in the pecking order and despite their relative seniority, their falls from grace aren’t easy to dissect…
Nelson was favoured by Arteta until the lockdown, presumably for his work-rate and immediate application to his methods but was then used sparingly post-restart and has barely featured this season. After failing to secure a loan, it only made sense to reintroduce him but I think it’s fair to say he was playing like someone with a fire under them. Given our inclination to attack at a glacial pace for much of the season, seeing someone with pace and willingness to go past people was nice to see from someone other than Saka, who’s shouldered far too much of that expectation lately and appears to be flagging as a result.
I’m still not sure what his best position is and while he’s clearly versatile, seeing him unshackled from either wing seemed to play its part in having that confidence to drive past players. The congestion in the final third meant the final ball often escaped him but that’s to be expected from someone who’s struggled for minutes this season. The gloss of a goal might have escaped him and while the opposition are nothing close to Premier League levels, I can see him featuring in games that require an injection of energy and drive from the bench. Arteta clearly has an ear to the ground on certain issues and another entirely valid criticism in our reluctance to up the intensity in games we’re chasing might have a solution in Nelson.
Willock is a player who I’ve liked the look of ever since he broke into the first team. With Aaron Ramsey’s departure, I’d forgotten how much I missed the constructive chaos a player like that can bring. By that, I mean darting runs in behind and an unpredictability that opens teams up. It’s not something you can easily teach and to have a player with the innate ability to make space in such a way is invaluable and a potential (welcome) antidote to the rigidity of our recent performances. It’s also handy to have a player who makes a first touch and finish like that look so easy, as goals from midfield is something we’ve dearly missed. He’s also capable of the sublime as we saw last season with his blooter at Anfield.
I suspect it has something to do with consistency rather than ability, which also goes some ways in explaining Pépé’s sporadic involvements in Arteta’s plans.
A feature of the rigidity in Arteta’s approach is a clear preference for players who will do a job consistently. Some of these players have mistakes in them, like Xhaka and Luiz and some have howlers in their locker and inexplicable fitness problems like Lacazette but they keep their places in the team because they carry out the jobs that Arteta demands from them every time they play. That’s partly because we don’t have better alternatives but the point remains, and while Nelson, Willock and even Pépé did what they did against Dundalk, the uncertainty is the difference.
I sympathise more in Pépé’s case because not only is he not a product of the academy – who people are always eager to support – but his inflated transfer fee complicates expectations. He also has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde dilemma, where he can chop a corner straight into the side netting and then score a brilliant goal on a right foot people didn’t know he had, all in the space of 90 minutes. Underneath the mazy runs, indecision and waste is a player with real technical ability who scores unpredictable goals.
Much in the same way as Willock’s chaos element, having a player who can score when you don’t expect them to, or when the odds are against them is essential. Thinking back to moments where Pépé’s come alive, like his two direct free kicks against Vitória or his goal against West Ham to break the deadlock, or even his ability to find Aubameyang at the back post.. they definitely don’t come often enough but I’d like to see him entrusted with a run of games and given the benefit of the doubt.
While there were plenty of “starters” absent, if the Europa League is useful for something, it’s confidence. The downside is United also comfortably rolled RB Leipzig, who aren’t exactly Dundalk.
Since being humbled by Mourinho’s lowly chancers. United have started looking dangerous and despite their suspect back lined, Rashford’s on and off-field ascension to some kind of football prophet is untimely. Without a league win at Old Trafford in 14 years and Mike Dean in charge also doesn’t help matters, but if there’s one thing Arteta’s brought, it’s the ability to actually compete with the Big Six. Here’s to hoping Mike Dean doesn’t steal the headlines.