I really thought Dundalk was going to be the quintessential Europa League fixture this season but Molde clearly had other ideas…
- 25-yard curler against the run of play by the plucky away team
- Xhaka inexplicably leading a counter-attack
- Kolasinac explicably blazing over from 6 yards with an open goal
- Going 2-1 up with 1 shot on target
- Linesman unable to distinguish between Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah (and no VAR because the Europa League is the Dark Ages for any “big” club)
At this point, the madness of the competition in an already-mad season is a nice coping mechanism in getting through the group stages, and the Hale End-ers continue to do the rest.
With the exception of Nelson who was ruled out with a knock, it was very much more of the same as Dundalk, with David Luiz also returning from injury to push Xhaka back into midfield.
It didn’t take long to see what kind of game we had on our hands, opening up Molde with ease, as Pépé put Nketiah through on goal within 5 minutes.
Joe Willock was also once again at the forefront of our offensive intentions and if his performance against Dundalk wasn’t quite enough, he’ll now be knocking at the door of the first team. I think people are quick to forget he made 44 appearances last season and while he hasn’t been afforded the same kind of opportunities in the league as Emery was forced to give him, he seems to have found himself again.
I spoke about the importance for a chaos factor this time last week and Willock picked up where he left off. In a team as structurally rigid as Arsenal are now, it’s easier to spot players breaking free from that system; that’s not to say that Willock is trying to stage a mutiny but it’s obviously an innate part of him as a player and it was as effective as ever. As comical as the two own goals were, neither happens without Willock and both were pertinent examples of the importance of movement in the final third because it gives defenders something to think about. It’s the same reason Saka has become virtually undroppable because he delivers where it matters.
While the first is easy to chalk up as bad defending – the kind you’d see on a Wednesday night in Istanbul – the defender isn’t forced into that mistake without Willock charging into the box. The second is even more impressive, because defensive mistakes aside, his first thought when receiving the ball on the edge of the box is to release it immediately and then lose his marker. He then wastes no time in firing the ball back across because that’s where the danger is. It’s no coincidence that, much like Ramsey did in his early years at the club, he finds himself in these positions time and again.
Even in the dying stages of the game, he found himself playing off the last defender after taking advantage of David Luiz’s passing range and almost scored if not for his weak foot. Minutes later and he finds half a yard of space around the penalty spot and his first instinct is to get a shot away. A minute later and he’s making runs into the box – when the game is beyond doubt – and he’s getting the goal he deserved.
The comparisons to Ramsey are easy to make because the two are eerily similar. When Ramsey first joined the club, it didn’t take long for him to start appearing in dangerous positions time and again because he was tenacious and had boundless energy. He may not have always converted those chances but the on-pitch intelligence was there in abundance and it was only a matter of time before things began to change. Within a few years, and after a particularly purple patch, he was on the radar of every top club in Europe because he was scoring so freely from midfield. Irrespective of his injury record or supposed inconsistency, that trait alone is worth its weight in gold and it’s no coincidence Ramsey was the decisive factor in two F.A. Cup finals.
I can’t help but like a player that takes games to the opposition and is so relentless in their approach because the law of averages always pays off and it was another dominant performance from the 21 year old.
We also have Granit Xhaka to thank for taking the bull by the horns and responding to the early scare with the kind of dominance we should be seeing in such fixtures, the same of which can also be said for certain league fixtures. The Europa League group stages pale in comparison to even the likes of Fulham (who look likely to finish comfortably in 20th), but when it comes to character, it was another reminder of why there is still a place in this side for a player like Xhaka despite his omittance from the win over United.
It was also another opportunity for Nicolas Pépé to reaffirm his stake in the team after also missing out and for all of his inconsistencies and frustrating tendencies, it was another game in which he walked away with some end product after a goal and assist.
I’ve long argued that our system isn’t tailored to enable him and given the right opportunities, he’s arguably our most clinical finisher after Aubameyang. The frustration is especially bound to the fact that we only ever see it in glimpses and is likely the same reason for Arteta’s reluctance to afford him league starts ahead of Willian. At the same time, I can’t help but feel a sense of equal frustration for a player that has no long-term future at the club to be earning starts ahead of a player who finished the season so strongly and who the club has made a significant financial investment in. Confidence is a necessity in the final third and I can’t help but sympathise with Pépé because he’s never quite done enough to earn a run of games under any of his three Arsenal managers. That can sometimes point to problems in application behind the scenes but for the flashes of brilliance we have seen from him and for his undeniable contributions in end product, I can’t help but wonder about his situation.
Looking forward to Sunday and our clash with this season’s enigma in Aston Villa, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arteta using Partey and Elneny again to put a stranglehold on Grealish and Barkley.
Their demolition of Liverpool is still very much fresh in the memory and while they’ve been brought back down to Earth with losses to Southampton and Stoke, they still look like a team with a point to prove. Emi Martínez will be one in particular and while it’s a shame he won’t be getting the rapturous reception he deserves, the prospect of facing a keeper of his quality with a team that only creates a few clear-cut chances a game is an interesting one.