Europa League joy continues

With 8 Hale End-ers making the squad and a chance for some redemption for Nicolas Pépé, there was enough intrigue going into the game to set it apart from your typically-dull group stage affair.

Also, given our open-play troubles in the league, the prospect of some catharsis by seeing us carving teams up again is always nice – even if it often takes us longer than it should to break the deadlock.

Last night followed suit (or not quite night as UEFA elected 17:55 to be a suitable kickoff time), as things didn’t quite click until the second half. It’s an undeniable truth that our changing fortunes coincided with Rob Holding’s introduction so it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to say he single-handedly changed the course of the game.

There is a small chance there were other factors at play – like Biden actually “stole” the election levels of small – but in the end, we were able to avoid a repeat of this:

Enamoured by the inspired half-time substitution, Pépé wasted no time in turning the screw on Molde. He was desperately unlucky to not see his strike from range creep in off the underside of the bar – a strike that no Premier League keeper would have saved for that matter.

Obviously not content with just the one cut-inside effort, he made no mistake moments later when he found himself with similar time and space in the box and it was another emphatic finish. I especially love this still of him because it’s a textbook example of great technique; perfectly balanced with a strong planted foot, while opening his body and foot up to apply the the finish.

It’s also something he’s threatened time and again at the club and I’ve always felt like we haven’t engineered enough opportunities for him to do so. I’ve mentioned the two free kicks against Vitória too many times already but that level of consistency just isn’t common. It’s the same reason he was able to generate a near-identical shot minutes later and why most of his efforts on goal often look dangerous.

Everyone knows he’s going to cut inside but certain players have made entire careers on that basis; the hard part is giving the keeper absolutely no chance of getting there but looking at the types of goals Pépé scores, that often seems to be the case. Arteta’s biggest challenge is to give him more opportunities to do so because it’s abundantly clear at this point that he’s not a touch-line winger.

There is a small caveat to this tendency, which is to know when to shoot and when to pass and Pépé still holds onto the ball for too long at times. If he learns how to toe the line here, we might still be able to see some return on the price tag.

The second came as a result of some successful tinkering on Arteta’s part, with a far more fluid front three behind Lacazette (who was sometimes interchangeable with Eddie, when the former dropped deeper as he so often does). Willock did well to find space in behind and there was no hesitation to play a first-time ball into the right neck of the woods and Nelson was perfectly placed to put it away. At this point, I really don’t see any harm in trying out Nelson ahead of Willian in the league. There was something especially nice about seeing two Hale End graduates combine to score.

We were lucky enough to see that phenomenon again with the late cherry on top, as Smith-Rowe and Balogun made a statement with their cameos. While it’s been some time since we saw Smith-Rowe for the first team, I always admired his ability to make the right decisions in the final third, much like Saka and that difference in end product is everything. There was a sharpness on the turn once Balogun received the ball and an instinctual finish – even if the keeper could have done better.

It still remains to be seen whether Arteta will be able to coax him into a new contract but I was once again impressed with his pace and movement, and getting another opportunity and a goal under his belt will help to ensure we don’t see another talented youngster leave for nothing.

I’m also especially eager for him to make a career at the club so the endless opportunities to make incredibly highbrow puns with his name doesn’t go to waste.

In the end, it all looked very routine but there’s still plenty of work to be done to make these fixtures more enjoyable and start playing like we mean business from the first whistle.

I also wonder if the formation tinkering is also going to be deployed in the league, albeit more cautiously. Arteta is clearly intent on some level of rigidity to aspects of our approach but it was never going to be an overnight fix to find a system that works with the tools he has available. Taking his infancy to the job into account, I still find it impressive that he’s able to produce such noticeable changes in small timeframes on players and systems, which is arguably his biggest asset from what we know so far.

Wolves will be another test and the players will hopefully be buoyed, if not slightly worried at the prospect of being embarrassed in the NLD if our current league form continues so there should be plenty more to talk about.

Until then.

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