London Arsenal made their way to nine points from nine in the UEFA Europa League group stage, but an own-goal brace and a superb shot from Nicolas Pepe earned him a 4-1 victory over Molde at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday.
Despite Mikel Arteta’s team controlling the ball early in the match, they encountered familiar problems breaking a low block, scoring a single shot in the first 22 minutes before Martin Ellingsen struck a superb goal past Bernd Leno.
Frustration seemed to build in North London until the separation led by Eddie Nikitiah and Joe Willock forced Christopher Hogan to score an own goal moments before the break. Arsenal exercised much more dominance in the second half, as Willock managed to score a second goal, this goal from Sherif Senian, before Pepe finished off the three points in the hour.
Super Willock got the goal he totally deserved to play before the time was up, with Arsenal achieving a win that puts him in the driving seat in Group B.
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How does Willian solve Arsenal’s problems?
In the 43rd minute, Joe Willock carried the ball over the field for Arsenal. Urging the young Arteta to spread the ball widely, Willian snapped on the right flank. The pass was on his way but it may have lacked some speed. However, whatever was wrong with the show, it is hard to understand how it elicited the angry reaction from a normally composed player.
Instead of advancing towards the pass, the Brazilian raised his hands in anger and confusion before waiting for the ball at the end. Instead, he recalled the moment in last season’s competition when Pierre Emeric Aubameyang taunted Joe Willock for a through ball.
The difference, and one importantly, is that if the pass is right for Obamyang, then it’s likely that Arsenal have scored. When Willian finally grabs the ball, he ends up driving down a dead end and ordering a debatable free kick.
For Willian, the memories of his excellent debut match against Fulham fade quickly, in the seven games because he had no help in his name and on the few occasions he had succeeded in overcoming an opponent or speeding up Arsenal’s hard play. In fact, he often appears to be a major supporter of her, checking out the playing field and taking on more touches than necessary.
This was even more upsetting for Arsenal when they justified hiring a 32-year-old, giving him a third year in his contract that Chelsea wouldn’t, as it would have an immediate effect. After years of success in the Premier League, he was supposed to be a veteran in offense with several developmental long-range pieces. Willian said last week that he’s still struggling to understand what Arteta wants from him. One wonders if by the time he’s up to speed he will diminish further as a player.
Arteta’s strange demands
Trying to anchor the Arteta system into anything as simple as formation is a challenge even when playing its strongest side. Arsenal’s attacking approach is, at times, so flexible that dedicating a specific location to a single player is a bit like trying to pin water.
In theory, this seems like an effective way to play soccer and sometimes it is, especially when you have smart and versatile players like Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. With others, she feels Arteta overcomplicating their skills.
Take Sead Kolasinac, an excellent full-back on the front foot with strength and speed to reach the sideline and shrink the rushing striker. What is not is the inverted full-back who can fold inward and offer an extra body in midfield.
However, during a strange spell of a few minutes in the second half, that is exactly what Arteta asked him to do, as he was constantly shouting “Coke inside” as Granit Xhaka pulled back to defend the center back three. The logic behind asking the full back to join the midfield is to allow the team to dominate the central areas but it needs players who can effectively hold them.
Even Kolasinak himself would accept that his playing of football was not his best quality and it was clear from the start that it was not an experience that would last. It’s hard to see what convinced Arteta that Kolasinac in such a role was a hypothesis worth testing in the first place.
Nicholas Pepe: Like Willian on the flip side, Bibi often seemed to slow Arsenal down when he needed to be pushed. However, there are glimpses of real talent, he recalled his back tug and cross pass in the crowd of Eddy Nikitiah’s goal which was incorrectly called offside and the curling shot he shot into the bottom corner of the Bukayo Saka shrink. Arteta’s challenge is to make these moments the norm, not the lost moments. Evaluation: 6
Etzaz Hussain: The midfielder made an excellent turnaround as Molde sought to maintain his foothold in the match, winning a series of fights and six tackles. Evaluation: 7
Joe Willock: His aggression and work rate in the final third earned his rewards as he forced both goals into his own right before finally scoring himself a goal in the 88th minute after a clever dash into the penalty area. This was another great match for Willock, who took his chances in this competition. Evaluation: 8
Arsenal host Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday while Molde faces Christiansund at home. The two sides will meet again in Norway on November 26th.
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