It was a comprehensive display from Arsenal to handle their Europa League opponent and keep themselves out of Dundalk folklore. Dundalk stood tall for the opening 40 minutes of the match, but much as I predicted, the onslaught continued, and once Arsenal got one, more followed. Two more followed to be exact, and in fairly quick succession. There was a halftime in between the second and third goal, but Arsenal scored all three within a 6 minutes stretch of playing time (42′, 44′, and 46′).
Unlike the Sheffield United match a few weeks ago, in which Arsenal struggled for much of the game aside from their two goals, these three goals were not the only bright moments. Which makes it odd that there were so many fans displeased with the performance.
I understand the desire to roll through a team by five or six goals, but we watched an Arsenal team command a game with 62% of the ball, 25 shots, 17 created chances, 92% pass success with much more intricate play than we are used to, and 3 goals. The only real complaint, and one I suppose I could understand, is that of the 25 shots, only 6 were on target. Not the greatest percentage. To make matters worse, only 6 were blocked shots which means we can’t even point at a compact defense putting their body on the line.
But credit where it’s due to both sides. Dundalk came out and put in a shift and didn’t make it overly easy. Arsenal’s first goal was a blunder from Dundalk’s keeper who came out too far for a corner, which is unfortunate for a side that was in need of a flawless match. Heads went down a bit and Arsenal punished them for a second with a very nice move.
Nketiah was played into space down the right side and set off running at the Dundalk backline. Dundalk probably retreats too far before stepping out to him. By the time they do, Nketiah plays an easy square ball to Pepe who has his shot blocked, falling right into the overlapping run of Joe Willock who finishes emphatically. Arsenal went into the half up by two, which was likely the end of the competition for a side like Dundalk that hadn’t created anything since the opening shot of the game tested debutant Runar Runarsson, but in case there was any chance of a dream comeback, Arsenal extinguished it quick.
Within the first minute of the second half, Joe Willock plays makes a nice dribble into the box before squaring a slightly wayward pass across the top of the box, winding up at the feet of Pepe. From there is a moment of individual brilliance from Nicolas Pepe. Pepe struggled this game for periods, but has he takes one prep touch out his feet and curls in a brilliant shot with his right foot, you could’t help but tip the cap in respect.
We have hardly seen Pepe use his right foot for much more than walking, yet here he is burying a half chance made from almost nothing. It’s the exact type of play that he is capable of, making him brilliant, but the exact play you know he’s capable of, making some of his less fine moments all the more frustrating. We will talk a bit about Pepe later.
It was a good win, a solid win, and one that keeps Arsenal on top of their group with 6 points. While this group is one that you would put money on Arsenal winning, it’s still worth noting that Rapid Vienna not only faltered today losing to Molde, they were relatively dominated. This puts Molde in second place on goal differential (+2). Arsenal will face Molde next week, which could me more interesting than we initially thought.
Until then, lets look at a few things from today!
Tactical analysis: Arsenal v. Dundalk
When it comes to rotated sides, you always wonder how they are going to play. How is the chemistry going to be? Will the instructions translated for players that see less minutes? Will there be a significant drop off in play? To double the questions, Arsenal are in the middle of transitioning into a much more attacking style of play. It’s the next progression, but it has been a bit slower than some people want.
With that in mind, many wanted to know what we would see from Arsenal versus a side like Dundalk. Some understood what Arteta’s aim was, others were frustrated by the technicalities of it, but all should understand what they were looking at… So, let’s dive in,
Technically, Arsenal lined up in a 3-4-3 type of formation, however, as we know from spending even a few months with Arteta, it hardly stays true to that. While it was rare, without the ball, if Arsenal didn’t press or were beat, they dropped into a 5-2-3. Soares and Maitland-Niles dropped, Kolasinac and Mustafi squeezed.
With the ball, and the focal point of this analysis, Arsenal broke out into a very attacking shape. One that not only offered numbers, but offered options on multiple planes of the pitch. This was often facilitated through the play of Willock, Maitland-Niles, and the wingers. This looked a bit more like:
Theres a couple ways to think about this if you were looking for a true “formation” — 2-1-2-5 or more likely 2-2-6 — because there was distinct movement from players depending on which side of the field the ball was working through. If the ball was on the left, players shifted a bit left and Cedric Soares tucked in alongside Elneny to create a shield of 2. If it were on the right, the same shift happened, this time from Kolasinac.
This pendulum look is pretty common, and happened a little bit against Leicester City, but in that match we saw it coming from the flat-three midfield. A major difference of course, was Arteta’s willingness in this match to make sure there was a 6th attacker present in the attack yesterday to form a 2-2-6 versus making sure we had 3 shielding the backline against Leicester City in more of a 2-3-5.
One other element that needs to be pointed out, was the movement and exchange from players on the wings with midfielders playing between the midfield and defensive lines of Dundalk. Their movement, rotation, and exchanges played a big role in making them hard to track and mark, and almost instantly they became more dangerous. A major aspect missing against Leicester City. Here is a look at a few common exchanges.
Two common exchanges, in addition to the pendulum flow of Kolasinac and Soares, was the picking and choosing of who would come central and who would stay wide between Maitland-Niles and Nelson on the left, and Soares and Pepe on the right. This alone is not the newest concept as we have seen the likes of Willian and Saka tucking in to allow for overlap for quite some time. However, having Willock constantly present between the lines to join them did add an element of options to play into and created a few issues tracking at times — especially in transition.
Willock’s presence, almost meant that Eddie could stay high with Dundalk’s backline, instead of needing to come back and do some of the dirty work we have seen him or Lacazette have to do in recent Premier League games without a midfielder in the hole. I imagine if we see Aubameyang occupying Arsenal’s central striker role, he too will have the ability to stay just off the shoulder of the opposition’s last defender.
On one hand, the attack was significantly better — 3 goals, 25 shots, 62% possession. On the other hand, Dundalk is a team ripe for those type of numbers. Does that mean that this is the attacking style we will see from Arsenal when they return to Premier League action? Sort of, but not entirely.
In my opinion, I do believe we will see more attacking from our central midfielders, facilitated by outside backs staying home just a little bit more. Versus Leicester, we saw almost not forward adventuring from our central three, instead everything went do the outside backs down the wing. It has an effect, it works to an extent, but it costs us significant involvement from players that are good on the ball. A hefty price.
Additionally, we saw a 3-4-3 against Dundalk and I do believe Arteta will continue to look to a back four system. This could be a 4-3-3 with someone playing a similar role to how Willock played today, or it could be a true 4-2-3-1. We will see how this game effects Arteta’s thinking.
A game like this can be hard to judge from a team persepective. Arsenal should dominate Dundalk, they relatively did dominate Dundalk, therefore good day at the office against Dundalk. It’s also hard to grab major takeaways on the squad as a whole and apply them to future games because of how rotated the lineup is due to the opposition. It’s because of these factors, that I find it best to look at individual performances. So let’s do it!
Feels impossible not to highlight individual performances and not lead with Joe Willock. With 1 goal, 1 assist, 3 key passes, 2 shots, and 4 dribbles he was probably Arsenal’s top performer. He put on a great performance in a role that Arsenal have struggled to fill, while demonstrating a few qualities that no one else in the side seems to have much of in their own lockers. Intricate play in compact spaces and continued runs in behind the opposition backline are the two main ones to highlight.
Willock truly rose to the occasion tonight and put on a performance in the face of reduced playing time, appearances, and overall uncertainty from fans. It’s a great thing to see and hopefully there is more of it coming.
Nelson has had a tough year. There were early rumors of him being loaned away, but now it appears he was the one that convinced Arteta to keep him at the club this year and allow him to fight for him. It’s an uphill battle on paper when you compare him to Nicolas Pepe and Willian, but it’s a battle he seems to be getting a hold of. He was spectacular against Leicester City when Arsenal played them within the Carabao Cup, but he went unrewarded when he wasn’t included in the following cup matches or against Rapid Vienna within the Europa Leauge.
Last night he had 3 shots, 4 dribbles, 2 key passes, went 6/7 on long balls, had 10 crosses, and a few defensive stats. Additionally, much like Willock, Nelson offered Arsenal a good amount of technical skill in tight spaces. He was energetic, dynamic, fluid, sharp, and direct. It’s something the regular first team for Arsenal haave been crying out for, and Nelson just offered it on a silver platter fr the second match in a row. Will be very interesting to see how Arteta reacts.
Pepe scored an absolutely splendid goal to kick off the second half, but there was plenty about his game to be concerned with. I think it is clear we are at the point where Pepe will likely never by the £72 million player we were sold, but since he is relatively paid for, we might as well get from him every bit we can. However, with Nelson playing well, Willian appearing to be the favorite from Arteta, Pepe’s hold on the position has all but slipped. He will have to continue to prove himself.
Runar had very little to do this evening on his debut, but he did it well. He made a save early in the first half on a very long-range effort, but it was his foot skills and ability to clear danger on corner kicks that impressed the most. Not a lot of work, as I said, but I would be willing to see just a little bit more from him.
AMN had a good game. Just good. There are a few stats that may highlight him as a more effective player, but last night he shared a pitch with Willock and Nelson who were showing what it means to them to be fighting for their life at Arsenal. Ainsley sort of disappeared. He was around, he made a few runs, a few plays, and a few defensive plays, but I just cant say I was overly impressed. For someone fighting for their own place, up against even Cedric Soares, he just didn’t seem to ‘bring it.
Eddie Nketiah was decent, although it doubled down on my desire to see Aubameyang play down the center. Elneny was solid and predictable for Arteta. Granit Xhaka came up big in the backline, but I can’t say I am one that is looking forward to it. Willian was subbed on, but kept pretty quiet.
Overall it was a good win, an enjoyable game, and now we look ahead to a much tougher one against Manchester United. Enjoy the win!