Hello Arsenal fans! I really hope yesterday’s win offered you a bit of escape from the recent struggles that Arsenal have been trying to overcome, especially in the Premier League.
In a match that saw Arsenal put on a fantastic second half, scoring three goals while keeping a clean sheet, the Gunners sealed their qualification into the next round of the Europa League.
Before the match, I wrote about the youth players being brought along potentially offering a breath of fresh air to both Arsenal and fans as they looked for ways to get out of their recent rut. While we didn’t get to see Miguel Azeez make an appearance, we saw a great level of impact from Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, and Nicolas Pepe throughout the game. To add to the party, Folarin Balogun and Emile Smith Rowe would combine late in the game to get the third goal and bring the celebrations to a peak.
For the first time in quite a while, I was unable to watch the match live. I have since gone back and watched the replay, but following along with Twitter, live updates and tickers, and a few chat groups, offered a really interesting perspective on the game, when I went back to re-watch the match.
At halftime, the scoreline showed the teams level 0-0. Arsenal had 51% of the possession, it was 9 shots to 7 in favor of Arsenal, 3 to 1 in terms of shots on goal, yet it was a first half that seemed to bring levels of frustration from fans. The final ball wasn’t there, the link up play was either slow or sloppy, the slippery pitch with the fake turf was causing problems, but there was a feeling that Arsenal could have both scored or been scored on one or two times.
Lately, these are reasons to worry. Arsenal has needed to capitalize on the few opportunities they create, which they didn’t, and have been a team of two halves lately. In a match that people wanted to see 90 minutes of dominance to show a bit of life, the first half didn’t satisfy the craving.
I acknowledge that I had the luxury of watching the first half knowing the final outcome, which is a very different viewing experience, but I found quite a few more aspects of the half to be positive than my first impression. I agreed with the aspects that people were pointing out at half time — transition pace, not taking chances, the final ball — but never felt it was as poor as some of the half time comments made it seem. Arsenal were missing the end product, and there were a few moments where the final linkup left you wanting more quality, but the fact that Arsenal created 9 shots, some dangerous opportunities, 5 corner kicks, a big chance, it seemed positive to me.
I think we knew that Molde would look to come out swinging. It was their home, their turf —quite literally— and getting something from this would see them take a massive step toward progressing from the group. They have been in great form within their domestic league, despite being quite a ways behind the league leaders, and they have a good amount of belief in their ability to play within a system and get results.
Arsenal took up a 4-4-2 shape and I thought they weathered that initial storm, kept themselves secure, and got attackers into dangerous areas. Truly, it was the end product that was missing. From this shape, Pepe and Nelson were extremely involved and dangerous, they were allotted the room and freedom to come central, there was a good amount of overlap play, especially from Soares on the right, and the balance struck between Nketiah staying high while Lacazette dropped very deep, almost taking up the number 10 role, was intriguing.
Defensively, we saw Willock bombing forward to join Nketiah when Arsenal lost the ball to lead the press, while Lacazette looked to be present within the midfield. I imagine this has to do with Willock’s more rampant athleticism and ability to cover ground better than Lacazette — whether it worked well is up for debate.
In the second half, Arsenal began to take over, and the spaces to attack were taken advantage of. The end product soon followed, helped by an early 2nd half finish from Nicolas Pepe who was the matches outstanding performer, added to by a lovely low cross from Willock to an onrushing Reiss Nelson to make it two, and sealed by the young Folarin Balogun just 30 seconds into him coming onto the pitch. He found a pocket space just inside the box, gave the defender a dip of his shoulder to let the ball run across his body, took a prep touch, and used the turfed surface to his advantage as he smashed it home. Truly a wonderful bit of play from him to make it 3-0. With 10 shots, 3 goals, 49% of the possession, 3 big chances, 1 shot hitting the woodwork, Arsenal put on a second half more in line with supporter expectations.
In watching the Europa League, a viewer has to take things with a grain of salt, realize that not every aspect transitions itself seamlessly to the Premier League, and look at some of the individual performances at times, more than the overall team performance. It’s in part why making hardline statements about the team are tough. However, there is one aspect that stuck out to me in watching yesterday’s match, compared to what we saw against Leeds United.
Arsenal need to transfer their Europa League ‘swagger’ to the Premiere League
Swagger: walk or behave in a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive way.
We all can think of players that exude ‘swagger’ in their play and persona. Players that hold themselves with an air of confidence. They know they can do whatever they want on the pitch and it will come off without a hitch. From an Arsenal perspective, your mind might jump immediately to some of Thierry Henry’s moments of dribbling around lunging defenders with grace and ease. My personal favorite, the moment late in Arsenal’s matchup with Real Madrid when he bursts past multiple defenders trying to take a swipe at him, to get the ball into the corner and see the game out. The look on his face was of someone who knew the game was won, knew he had dominated Real Madrid in their home, and there was nothing they could do about him. The confidence was on full display.
1:59 is the specific play I am talking about, but the whole match is a perfect example.
And look, the idea that we have players with a ‘Thierry’ lying dormant inside them may be a stretch, but there are a few players that exude confidence in their game when it comes to the Europa League, but seem to shell up and become more timid when the competition is raised.
Two specific players suffering from just that right now? Joe Willock and Nicolas Pepe. But the team as a whole carries themselves differently in the Premier League and it’s visibly noticeable. Better competition in the Premier League, better quality defenders, well-drilled competition that can shut you out — in many ways it’s understandable, but a mental shift is needed.
Throughout the Europa League, but especially yesterday, you can visibly see the difference in the attack between a match vs. Molde and a match vs. Leeds. The two teams are different, but when you look at a young player like Joe Willock or Nicolas Pepe, you see a huge fundamental difference. It’s a willingness to dare in the Europa League, with a belief they can pull off something special, versus a hesitation on the big stage.
Throughout the Europa League, we have seen more daring runs, intricate passing, a balance of direct play with intricate combinations. Yesterday, Pepe exuded confidence as he demonstrated what he can do when he dribbles with a purpose. I found myself thinking of a mindset from Thierry Henry, and a similar one talked about by Aubameyang. About getting the ball and thinking to yourself, “Im going to kill this defender in front of me”.
When Pepe picked up the ball you knew he was going to drive at the defense. It’s something, we haven’t always seen from him, especially within the Premier League. Not that that is entirely on him, but the way he balanced his flair and direct play, the way he carried himself, and the end result he was producing was fantastic.
Joe Willock is another example. He has been fantastic in the Europa League. He has shown himself capable of offering qualities in the attack that few within the Arsenal camp offer. He looks to get in behind, he plays between the lines, he can combine in half spaces, he offers a scoring threat, and he can drive the attack forward. Finally, we got to see him play minutes within the Premier League versus Leeds and he was objectively a different player. A little more timid of a player. He disappeared a bit more, his technical skills seemed to let him down, he wasn’t as daring, he didn’t find his way in behind, and the way he seemed to hold himself up lacked a bit of that ‘swagger’.
I’m not trying to pick on Willock or Pepe, truly, they are a microcosm of an issue the team has right now. When Arsenal have marched out in their last 3 Europa League matches, it has seemed to me they carried an internal confidence of, “we are going to win this match and there is nothing they can do about it”.
Arsenal have quality in them. They have attacking play, at least better than what they have shown within the Premier League. The next step is carrying that confidence, that swagger, into the tougher matches. Arteta has to help instill it, the players have to take it upon themselves to believe it, and as it starts to pay off, the consistency will follow.
Wolverhampton up next!