Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Arsenal 4-1 Molde: Willock drives Gunners to comfortable win

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The Europa League group stages are strange to me, even after four years in this competition. Last night, with the Emirates empty – starkly so – the absence of fans contributed significantly to a sense of oddness before the game.

What we got was fairly typical group stage fare. An early goal for the visitors; lots of Arsenal possession; a couple of goals ruled out for offside when VAR might have made a difference; an impressive showing from a young midfielder; Granit Xhaka leading a counter-attack; Nicolas Pepe swinging between both poor and good, like Schrodinger’s Pepe; and in the end a comfortable win.

Molde’s goal is not one Bernd Leno will look back on with any great affection. He kicked long, we were all over the place when the ball came back to their man, and the German was – to my mind, at least – beaten too easily by an admittedly well-placed shot from distance. It was no howitzer though, and the Arsenal keeper looked pretty pissed off that he’d let it in. Good, he should be as he quietens the annoying little voice in the back of his head taunting him … ‘Emi Martinez would have …’ … you know the rest.

There wasn’t much to like about the first half in general, but towards the end we sparked into some kind of life. Pepe’s ball into the box was poked home by Eddie Nketiah, but ruled out because Joe Willock was offside. Would VAR have given it? I can’t sit here this morning and care too much because I hate VAR quite a lot so advocating its use doesn’t really sit right, but it might have.

Still, we found an equaliser late in the half when, having defended a corner, we broke forward, Granit Xhaka leading the charge, galloping upfield with the ball like a mighty Clydesdale dragging a cart full of produce behind it. He found Nketiah outside him, and his ball across towards Joe Willock was knocked into his own net by the defender. The best part of this was said defender fouling Joe and pulling his shirt so he could get to the ball first, tidy finish son!

Molde began the second half pressing high, but Arsenal soon turned the screw and should have been ahead in the 54th minute. A Willock cross from the right saw the keeper flap at it, it fell for Sead Kolasinac who had an open goal, four yards out, but somehow he clumped the ball over the bar. A genuinely astonishing miss from a professional player, wrong foot or not. I know our expectation levels for him aren’t sky high, but still, he should have scored.

Willock was again an integral part of the second own goal, his desire to make something happen around the edge of the box created danger. He played a give and go with Xhaka, it didn’t quite come off, but he doesn’t give up when others might, the ball broke to him, he crossed, and again a defender put the ball into his own net. Not pretty, but it demonstrates the importance and value of having a player whose movement is based around making things happen – and in that sense Willock is kind of unique in this squad when it comes to midfield.

I thought the introduction of Bukayo Saka made us a lot better. Whether that was also down to the fact Willian went off is another question, but again I thought the Brazilian was disappointing, especially in the kind of game where he should be able to use his experience and quality to do more. What was also interesting about the change was that it made Pepe better too, he seemed to be able to play with a bit more freedom.

Like last week he had struggled to make an impact, but he scored a goal after we worked it down the left hand side, from Willock to Eddie to Saka, and the Ivorian made no mistake with his finish – quite interestingly from a central area. In this part of the pitch he is so much more effective than when stuck out on the right trying to beat men, and while there’s obviously a lack of consistency, we’ve seen enough to know this is the kind of chance he relishes and usually finishes without any problem. If we’re seeking an answer to the Pepe Problem, if you can call it that, I’d suggest finding a way to get him more involved in these areas, rather than leaving him stranded in wide positions, might be a good place to start.

There was another Nketiah finish ruled out for offside, before Willock got the goal his performance deserved. Again Pepe made a telling contribution, he spotted the run and made an excellent pass, but credit too to Mohamed Elneny who found the record signing with a good ball when he might have played a more conservative pass. Willock’s movement was superb again, the finish emphatic, and it was good to see him on the scoresheet because his overall display merited something tangible.

I’d also suggest that Willock’s run in the box for the Pepe goal helped create the space for the finish, and having spoken pre-game about his desire to give the manager something to think about when he’s given chances, he did exactly that. I’ve said this before, but I think there’s a really interesting player in there, and while some will downplay the fact this was just the Europa League or this was ‘only’ Molde, it was the same tournament and same opposition for other Arsenal players on the pitch who were far less effective and eye-catching. All he can do is play well when given his chances and he did that.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

He is developing the right way, he is a player that I really like, he has some very special qualities. He deserves every minute he’s been playing and he’s showing it with performances, with goals and with his attitude.

Whether that’s enough to see him starting Premier League game is another discussion, but what we’ve seen of him this season – as well as last season too, let’s not forget he was our highest scoring midfielder in all competitions – should be enough for him earn a place on the bench. In games when we need movement in the final third to make things happen, he is an element of chaos. I use that fondly, by the way, because there’s real intelligence to the way he moves and the timing of his runs into the box, but it stands out when so many of our other options are relatively static in comparison.

All in all, a comfortable win in the end, routine stuff at this stage of the competition, and all eyes are now on Sunday evening and the visit of Aston Villa.

I’ll leave you with a new Arsecast, recorded after last night’s game with Andrew Allen, chatting about the win, Willock, Pepe and lots more. Listen/subscribe below.


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