In a match where the quality between the two sides was always going to be on display, regardless of the youth that Arsenal put on the pitch, Arsenal strolled into Ireland, took care of business, and left with a 2-4 win over Dundalk.
Goals from Nketiah, Elneny, Willock, and Balogun helped maintain Arsenal’s flawless win record in the group stages and won Arsenal an extra 500k euros — the Europa League prize money for a group stage win — but that was always expected of them. From a fans perspective, or at least this fan’s perspective, this was a game that quite simply ‘was what is was’.
In yesterday’s prematch blog, I talked about the lack of major minutes for many youth players. Maybe that was a slightly unfair in some ways, considering Willock, Nelson, and Nketiah have made their mark throughout the six matches and they still qualify as young in the eyes of most. However, the lineup yesterday is a perfect example of why many are frustrated.
Arsenal: Runarsson, Chambers, Mustafi, Mari, Cedric, Willock, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Smith Rowe, Pepe, Nketiah
A throwaway game up in Ireland and three promising youth players, Azeez, Cottrell, and Balogun are seated on the bench while Eddie and Elneny play. It was always likely this would be the case, I said as much in the blog, but it is still frustrating. Why? Because we don’t learn much of anything seeing them.
Nketiah scored by pressing Dundalk’s backline? Yeah, he is a scavenger and workhorse who took advantage of a center back with less quality. Good goal, good to see, but *shrug* alright. Elneny scores a screamer? Great to watch, but this is well beneath the quality that tests him. Maitland-Niles at left-wingback? We have seen him play that role against Manchester City, nothing much to learn today. Pepe, Cedric, Mustafi, even Willock — same story.
We have seen them, we have seen what they can do up against inferior competition, but we haven’t seen enough minutes from others to make the same assessments. Balogun game into the match in the 62′ minute, Cottrell in the 77′ minute, and Azeez in the 83′, so they got some minutes, but is it really enough for a meaningless match?
It was an easy watch. An entertaining watch, I suppose, in that Arsenal won and I enjoy when they win. And it’s pretty cool to be the only team in Europe to manage a 100% win record (Champions League included), but it wasn’t the full experience many fans were hoping it would be.
Regardless of how few takeaways, and the absolute fact that it all must be taken with a bucketful of salt, there were a few interesting aspects to consider.
The image above are the locations in which Arsenal forced turnovers or dispossessed Dundalk. In this image, Arsenal are attacking from right to left, so I have put a circle around the 7 occasions in which Arsenal forced an error in their attacking third or right on the line between attacking third and middle third.
Forcing turnovers in these areas lead to chances, lead to numbers up situations, and let to Nketiah’s goal. In recent matches Arsenal’s press has been much less effective, nor present. When a side is struggling to create chances, getting themselves into dangerous situations through rampant pressing is a great opportunity to make up for it.
Arsenal’s press this year has been rather ineffective within the Premier League for stretches and inconsistent in its presence. Whether that is a fitness issue or the fact that Arsenal were getting broken down far too easy, Arteta will need to bring the press with him into the league campaign during the next month.
Balogun steals the show
There were a handful of good performances from the youth players subbed into the game, but Balogun’s goal and assist will have thoroughly stolen the show. He was subbed into the for 28 minutes and certainly made the most of it.
Receiving the ball in the box, he showed immense strength and composure to hold off the defender behind him and lay it off for Willock to finish. It was an extremely mature bit of quality from the youngster, but he wasn’t done there. In the 80th minute he does a really great job holding his width, finding space between the center back and outside back, and holding off his run to stay onside. Pepe finds him with an easy through ball into the box but it’s the cool, calm, collected finish that has people buzzing.
Slotted into the corner with lovely precision, it’s not hard to see why fans are comparing it to an Henry-esque goal. Balogun will have a long way to go before that comparison is fully warranted, but his play demonstrated a lot of what Arsenal are missing from their central man.
Good holdup play, good movement, percise finishing, and with a goal involvement every 20 minutes so far, he’s displaying a keen knack for making the most of his chances. With only 15 touches in the match, it seems Balogun is capable of being the low-touch, effective player Arsenal are in need of within their attack.
This isn’t to suggest that Balogun should start every game…yet.. but finding ways to continue getting him involved in the coming month has become a must for Arteta. Much like Martinelli getting his shot under Unai Emery early last year, Mikel must find a way to get Balogun involved however he can. One factor what would go a long way to making that possible? Arsenal start winning games.
Balogun may be a ways off from getting a Premier League start, but his quality seems undeniable. As Arsenal navigate contract negotiations with him, they have to begin to treat him as the potential prize prospect he is.
ESR could be the internal solution
Everyone is well aware of the fact that Arsenal’s attack lacks presence and technique in dangerous areas. It’s an aspect that has plagued their performances this year, and whether leaving Ozil out of the squad was right, wrong, or a necessity, it has had its effects.
Many will also be aware of the name Emile Smith Rowe and the fact that he has been plagued by injury at all the wrong times… or just all the time.
Yesterday, he showed a keen ability to offer tidy technical skills, good movement, and bursts of creativity that caught the eye of Mikel. After the match, Arteta was asked about Smith Rowe’s play and was full of praises.
“He hasn’t played many games, he played in a position that doesn’t suit him perfectly for his qualities but you can see that every time he’s around the ball that something is going to happen.
“He has a lot of creativity, he’s a player that has the quality to receive the ball and do things in high-value spaces when things get open. He’s a threat and I’m really happy with his performance.”
Those ‘high-value’ spaces are in between the lines and exactly where Arsenal are barren. With January on the way, people are trying to assess what Arsenal will be capable of doing to help themselves get out of 15th place. While it’s quite obvious Arsenal could use two quality midfielders, whether or not that is plausible given the bloated squad and reckless spending from the club over the last five years, remains to be seen.
If getting their hands on two attacking midfielders it out of reach for a January window, getting ESR involved could be a middle ground. It may be too much to expect him to save the team, but he has too much attacking potential to not involve if healthy. He showed it last night.
Arteta has shown us time and time again this year that these matches don’t mean much to him when it comes to major changes within the Premier League. Arsenal have shown that these wins mean very little to them when it comes to finding form or gaining confidence. They have only won one match following a Europa League match midweek, which means any expectations need to be adjusted.
Arteta has already commented on leaving many of his usual ‘first team’ players back in London to offer a full week of training, which tells us that many of the players present versus Dundalk, may not feature come Sunday against Burnley. However, Arsenal are desperate for results and they need them now.
Europa League is set to the side until February when it pick back up for the Round of 32 which means all eyes shift to the Premier League, FA Cup, and Carabao Cup. What kind of response does the club have to adversity? We will find out. Sink or swim time.