It’s a good morning after yesterday’s pleasant win against Molde in the third group stage match of Group B’s Europa League campaign. Unfortunately, it has to be a bit of a quick one this morning, but hoping to write an extra article or two before Arsenal’s clash with Villa since there are a few good aspects to cover with this one!
First things first — the match! Molde came to The Emirates as the second-place side having won their opening two matches which meant they were level on points with Arsenal. A win put them in first and 3 points would mean Arsenal could seal progression in the match number 4, also against Molde. Sealing progression that early gives Arteta plenty of flexibility in future Europa League lineups, something that will certainly be important on December 3rd when they play Vienna in between major Premier League matches against Wolverhampton (Nov. 28) and Tottenham (Dec 5).
This thought almost certainly played a role in Arsenal’s strong lineup, although it won’t have been the only factor. Arsenal’s lineup was quite similar to the lineup I predicted in the pre-match blog, except I did not foresee Nelson missing out with a minor knee injury and Arteta opting to keep Leno in the net.
Arsenal XI: Leno; Kolasinac, Luiz, Mustafi, Maitland-Niles; Xhaka, Ceballos, Willock; Willian, Nketiah, Pepe.
As I talked about in the pre-match blog, I thought there would be an extremely strong feel to the lineup because of Arteta’s need to get Mustafi and Luiz minutes, offer Xhaka and Ceballos an opportunity to impress, and extend another chance for Pepe to show what he could do. The truth is, as Arsenal have purchased reinforcements and adopted Arteta’s identity, it appears they have in fact become a much stronger team. Seeing a relatively second-string side, with names like these is foreign territory at this point but a welcomed sign of good things to come.
The match kicked off and we saw a slightly tweaked style of play, albeit not entirely different. Ceballos and Granit sat a little deeper in the midfield creating more space for Willock, Willian, Pepe, and Nketiah to filter between the lines or staying high. It wasn’t always picture perfect, but with Ceballos’ willingness to test himself in breaking the lines and trying the more daring vertical ball, there were glimpses of much better play.
An early chance in the 5th minutes showed exactly this. The ball won by Arsenal in the midfield, Ceballos finds Pepe in lots of space running at the Molde backline. He slips a ball through for Nketiah who did great to get ahead of the play and be dangerous, but just couldn’t quite find the finish, as his dink over the keeper didn’t have enough power and was cleared from the line.
Arsenal would continue to have more of the ball but Molde would strike first. As Arsenal spread themselves into position to place from the back, Leno played long to Nketiah who came up second best against Molde’s center back. At that point, Arsenal were quite spread out. A lovely finish by Molde’s Ellingsen from about 30-35 out and they are in the lead. Maybe Leno wasn’t expecting the shot from that distance, but he was caught out and hardly covered himself in glory. No one from Arsenal did.
The half continued with some really nice bits of play and opportunities built by Ceballos and Joe Willock. Xhaka found a bit of space, despite playing a rather defensive midfield role, and got in on the action, but they struggled to find the final ball. Finally, in the 43rd minute, everyone thought they had done it.
Xhaka finds a bit of space and plays a lovely, weighted, line-breaking ball through to Pepe on the left who wriggles some room to smash a ball across the mouth of the goal. Nketiah steers it home, but the flag goes up against Joe Willock. Clearly Nketiah was not offsides. Not by a long shot and it’s him that puts the ball in the net. Has Joe participated in the play because he goes for the ball and is about a foot from Eddie when the ball goes in? Does that matter if he’s not touched it? I thought not, but no VAR in Europa League and the flag went up. Second questionable offside call resulting in an Arsenal goal being called back.
Everyone seemed resigned to go into the half down, but off a corner kick, Arsenal defended really well and Xhaka breaks out to receive a ball from Willian. In the open space, Nketiah does a great job bombing forward to get into the attack and receives the ball. He does a great bit of work to slot in Willock, almost on the penalty spot, which forced Molde’s defender to try and make a play, resulting in an own goal. 1-1 at the half.
In the second half, it seemed as though Arsenal were poised to not only continue to create a few more chances but find the ticket to tucking them away for goals. In the 53rd minute, Willock overlaps Willian on the right to get to the endline and plays a lovely cross that enticed the keeper to having a go at it. He is only able to get a hand to it and it falls right to Kolasinac, four yards out, with an open net. Skied. In that moment there was a mixed feeling of confidence there would be more chances, but what a terrible miss. Would they all go like that?
Question answered in the 62nd minute. It’s a second own goal, where the status sullies the goal. It’s a great bit of extended possession, it’s good movement, it’s great from Willock once more and he puts the ball in an area the defender needs to make a play. There’s much more quality in it than the scoresheet reflects.
This essentially deflated Molde and lifted Arsenal to the next level. They went on to create a slew of chances including a wonderful goal from Pepe, assisted by Bukayo Saka who cut the pass back to the top of box for Pepe to finish coolly. Finally, the evening was capped off by Joe Willock getting on the end of a very well-deserved goal.
Arsenal roll 4-1 on an evening where there Hale End product shines once more. Here are a few takeaways!
Creativity there, end-ball was not for much of the match
For much of this season, there has been a looming worry surrounding Arsenal’s inability to produce creativity and creative play. It’s reflected in their low shot totals, their low chance creation statistics, and their low goal amount. In 7 Premier League matches, Arsenal have produced just 9 goals. Now, they are conceding the fewest goals in the league, so the results are following, but the worry is there and justified.
Against Molde, the creativity was actually there. Willock was galvanizing the attack and taking control of it from his attacking midfield role, and it was a sight for sore eyes. Arsenal managed to create 17 shots, 17 chances, and 5 big chances on the evening. The issue was finding the final ball, which oddly enough, feels a little bit like a positive step.
For much of last season during the restart, Arsenal were dependent on finishing exquisitely with the few chances they created. Early in this season, the story has been similar. 8-12 shots try to score on 1-3 of them. The movement hasn’t always been there. The combination play in tight spaces. The look to create space with off-ball movement. Overlaps, switches, over the top, through the middle, left, right, variety! All aspects supporters, and coaches I imagine, have been begging to see in action.
Last night, we got a taste. Willock was exchanging really nice with Nketiah, Willian, Ceballos, Pepe. Flashing into the middle and darting out. Looking to get to the endline and serve a dangerous ball. Shots from the midfield, or from Joe Willock at least. The struggle was finding the finishing touch. Whether it was a sloppy cross, one touch too many, a poor shot, slow reactions — things just didn’t quite click until halfway through the second half. With that said, the creativity was there, and points should certainly be score with supporters for it.
Midfield competition is heating up
Against Manchester United, we saw the emergence of a midfield partnership that got everyone a bit excited. Thomas Partey and Elneny did a fantastic job of working with one another to create a level of midfield play we haven’t seen in over a year. Obviously, a lot of that credit goes to Partey who lights up the stats sheet and heatmaps with his production, but Elneny’s contributions were astounding.
He is a quintessential partner. A Robin to other’s Batman. And his tidy technical play, consistent production, and high-IQ allows him to scan the game, recognize the areas he should be in to maintain balance with his midfield partners, and produce plays. From there, Elneny’s workrate is unquestionable and even allows him to cover distances to make up ground should the midfield find themselves out of position. If his form stays like this, he will be nearly impossible to uproot. However, there is plenty of competition that will try.
When Arteta is capable of selecting a back-up midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, two players that helped carry Arsenal to an FA Cup final, you know the team is advancing in the right direction. When that pairing is shown up by a Hale End product named Joe Willock, you realize that the competition for first-team, midfield spots is coming to a boil.
It’s really great to see and continuing to watch it from here on out will be highly enjoyable for the next few months while Arteta establishes how he sets up the team in matches we expect to defend versus matches we look to attack. I am not sure what else Joe Willock can do to show he is ready to get a chance at Premier League minutes, other than what he has done these last two Europa League matches. Unless Arteta is set on playing a 3-4-3 with a central pivot of just Mo and Partey, and doesn’t want to put Joe on the wing, he should be getting a chance to prove himself again.
For the third game in a row, Arsenal have looked really good when they set up a press, look to pressure the ball early after turning it over, and force the opposition into quick mistakes. Versus Molde, Arsenal did a really good job of this early in the match and it allowed them continue to apply pressure. When they turned it over, they won it back, recycled possession and went again.
It was a wonderful bit of pressure that created Arsenal’s fourth goal. As a unit, they trapped Molde into their own defensive corner, forced an errant clearance, which was collected and quickly transitioned into attacking areas before being finished off by Joe Willock, one of the people applying the initial pressure.
It’s fantastic to watch, it results in a sense of rampant defensive presence, an uptick in the team’s tempo all-around, they create easy quality chances, and it certainly shifts the momentum. When they settle into their own half, teams are able to get on the ball and get after them a little bit more. Molde was no different.
For the periods of time Arsenal didn’t have the legs to carry out an effective press, Molde settled on the ball and created decent stints of pressure and a few good chances. Arteta has commented on the fact that a pressing Arsenal is a better Arsenal. Now they need to find a way to gain the fitness needed to maintain that pressure for longer stretches of the match. It looked really good against Molde and certainly helped produce the emphatic 4-1 scoreline.
That was Arsenal’s win and a few of my takeaways. Plenty of good performances to dig into, including a few that I am hoping to look at before we move onto Aston Villa, but for now, think about these and enjoy the win!
Major Premier League match against Aston Villa on Sunday. Welcome back, Emi! Bye, now.