Arsenal’s home match against Southampton could well be the defining game in Mikel Arteta’s reign.
Arsenal secured their passage through to the knockout stages with a comfortable 3-0 win over Molde in Norway in the Europa League.
It represented a chance for Arsenal to bounce back after the 0-0 draw against Leeds last time out. Nicolas Pepe was given the chance to atone for his indiscretion and started. Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock also were given starting berths, as was young Alex Runarsson in goal as Bernd Leno was given the night off.
Elsewhere Ainsley Maitland-Niles was given a rare start, as was Cedric, while David Luiz was back after missing the Leeds match due to the birth of his daughter.
In the first half, Arsenal created their fair share of chances however the best chance fell to Molde, and in particular, Magnus Eikrem. He crossed for Sheriff Sinyan at the back post however Alex Runarsson was able to make the save as the shot was tame from the defender from point-blank range.
Going into the break at 0-0, something needed to change, and it did. After the interval, Arsenal came out a different side, constantly pressing and pinning Molde back inside their own half. It took just five minutes for the pressure to tell as Nicolas Pepe’s curling finish nestled into the top corner to further stamp his authority on the game.
Just five minutes later Arsenal doubled their lead. Two of Arsenal’s Hale End products in Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock combined for Arsenal’s second. A neat build-up and then a low driven cross from Willock found Nelson near the penalty spot and he duly converted to double Arsenal’s lead. Willock now leads the competition in assists with four as he picked up another two.
After the second goal, the game became more open as Molde went in search of goals, however, Arsenal were reasonably comfortable with what they threw at them.
In another boost for Arsenal’s youth system, youngsters Emile Smith Rowe and Folarin Balogun were both introduced late in the second half and the duo combined for Balogun’s first senior goal. After only being on the pitch for a minute, Balogun’s goal came from a sweeping move and was found by Smith Rowe in the box and the striker turned and rifled his shot past the keeper with his first touch of the night.
Arsenal saw out the game with ease as Arsenal booked their passage into the knockout stages with two games to spare.
Nicolas Pepe more than made up for his red card
Many will look at the opposition, however there was a lot of pressure on the Ivorian in this one and many questions were surrounding his future in the team. He answered those and then some. It was perhaps his best game in an Arsenal shirt as he toyed with the Molde defence and took his goal well. Pepe was constantly looking to drive forward and go by defenders as he simply terrorised them. He will play no league football for three weeks however expect him to take centre stage in Europe.
Reiss Nelson should start over Willian
This is not even a debate anymore. Nelson has shown on numerous occasions this season exactly what he can bring to the team: creativity, pace, trickery, and much needed energy in Arsenal’s final third. His great run into the box put him into position to slot home his goal. It was another great performance from him and on this form, Willian should be on the bench.
Willock impresses again
He got hammered by sections of Arsenal’s fan-base for his performance against Leeds, however Pepe’s red card early in the second half forced Mikel Arteta to withdraw the young Englishman rather early. Another European match and another great outing as he provided two assists on the night as the Gunners cruised in the second half. Taken off with 15 minutes to go could be a sign that he is in line to start against Wolves. He more than deserves another start in the league.
Arteta must find a starting spot for Maitland-Niles
Maitland-Niles is simply a pleasure to watch. He was played as left back for this one and he was so comfortable for most of the night that it almost seemed too easy for him. With Joe Willock being substituted, Maitland-Niles found himself in his preferred position in central midfield.
Given that both Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos featured as well as Willock, could Maitland-Niles be in line for some midfield Premier League minutes? He is more than a viable option.
Defence solid yet again
As with Nicolas Pepe, fans will once again look at the opposition and Arsenal should have played well. However, saying it and doing it are two completely different things. On a chilly Norwegian night, Arsenal’s defence was relatively untroubled aside from Sinyan’s effort.
Alex Runarsson again collected another clean sheet and Arsenal’s defence worked well together. David Luiz was withdrawn at halftime, replaced by Rob Holding as Arteta took a conservative approach with the Brazilian, who appeared to suffer a minor injury. All in all, it was a comfortable night for Arsenal’s defence. They dealt with everything with relative ease.
Overall, it was another good European night for Arsenal with their Hale End graduates shining and that should please all Gunners fans. Pepe bounced back, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock impressed, while Smith Rowe and Balogun both featured, with the latter scoring his first senior Arsenal goal.
It is four wins from four in Europe and attention now turns to Wolves in the Premier League and Arsenal must carry some of this momentum into that match. Arsenal’s season depends on it.