The minute’s silence for the passing of Diego Maradona wasn’t lost on Arsenal fans before their second leg match away to Molde in the Europa League. A great and influential football figure had left behind a lasting legacy and for Gunners fans, it was a case of paying tribute to the type of player that an underachieving and underperforming Arsenal would die for.
For the Gunners, this was about its emerging stars, many of which shone brightly against the Norwegian side including Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland Niles, Joe Willock, and Folarin Balogun. The stage was set for Nicolas Pepe to cash in his redemption voucher for his moment of madness at Leeds and he didn’t disappoint.
This was the Pepe that Arsenal paid over the top for, a bustling, unpredictable, exciting, dynamic, and exotic player, capable of moments of brilliance. He was head and shoulders above anyone else and his superb performance begged the question “where have you been hiding.”
The backdrop to the Molde vs Arsenal fixture was rather unpalatable. The Gunners had been firing blanks in front of goal in the Premier League but in the Europa League, they seemed far easier to come by. Sometimes, teams suffer a dip in the form either home or away, but Arsenal have managed both so far this season. Molde are hardly Bayern Munich, but they had enough to test an Arsenal side that is as much Jekyll as it is Hyde.
There was a comedy moment as Molde’s version of Lacazette, Sheriff Sinyan, managed to miss an absolute sitter and ended up on his backside with a leg on either side of the goal post. Somehow, he managed to find the hand of Arsenal keeper Alex Runarsson instead of the yawning net, and the ball span harmlessly to safety.
The pluses on the night seemed to be all Arsenal’s with Reiss Nelson, who had a decent enough game against Leeds, continuing to push his claim for a starting spot from the first whistle. Nelson is a player who loves to launch himself forward at blistering speed, but it’s his appetite for goal and ability to excite that now makes it difficult not to pick him automatically for the first team.
For the first five or so minutes, Reiss Nelson was heavily involved in everything good from an Arsenal perspective, linking up well with Maitland-Niles and flashing down the left like he was paid by the yard. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was keen to get rid of his versatility tag by looking very assured and aggressive. He was a threat going forward and solid in his defensive duties and he must also be knocking on the door as soon as Nelson walks through it.
Four homegrown Arsenal players have been directly involved in a goal vs. Molde:
Folarin Balogun: ⚽️
Reiss Nelson: ⚽️
Joe Willock: ?️?️
Emile Smith Rowe: ?️
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 26, 2020
Joe Willock also delivered in Norway but I’m still concerned that he lacks consistency and the ability to dominate. He’s young but these opportunities need to be taken before Arteta buys someone. Smith Rowe made his first appearance for Arsenal this term and although he wasn’t his usual eye-catching self, he’s still coming back to fitness and will get better.
Ultimately, this was the Pepe show and he nearly pulled off the Arsenal goal of the season with a wicked curler in the 48-minute which clattered the crossbar. He wasn’t about to be denied because moments later (50), he received the ball near the back post. He brought it down and blasted another curler past a flapping Linde.
If only this type of form could be transferred to his Premier League performances. That may require dropping Willian which won’t go down particularly well with the Brazilian, but Arteta needs points and performances and the Ivory Coast winger needs to continue to show some return.
Arsenal nearly got a second but Nketiah came up short, he continued to have chances but no luck and would have been desperate to sink one, especially with Balogun breathing down his neck. The American youngster (19) may even displace Alexandre Lacazette, who looked distinctly out of form and touch.
Nelson made up for that miss (55) by burying the ball in the net from a Joe Willock cross, capping an impressive performance. That was followed up by Folarin Balogun’s first top-flight goal (83) and there was evidence of a player with a nose for goal and exquisite touch.
I feel like we’ve been promoting him for the best part of a year but finally, perhaps out of desperation, Arteta is not only going to secure a contract extension for the young hotshot but also to include him occasionally this term. Lacazette may go, Nketiah isn’t the finished article and Aubameyang will move on eventually, leaving the mouthwatering prospect of Martinelli and Balogun.
I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s get back to the Molde vs Arsenal game. It was a much-improved performance and fans will be pleased to see goals but Arteta is still looking for the right blend. He has injuries with Luiz being the latest and he hasn’t yet had the luxury of Mari, Martinelli, and Partey, who would surely add value to the side. Next up for Arsenal is Wolves and Arteta has much to contemplate if his side are to start collecting valuable points.