Following their 1-2 win over Rapid Wien on matchday one, Arsenal entered their match against Dundalk with a slightly different feeling.
Though Arsenal’s Europa League group has been colloquially referred to as ‘the easy draw”, Rapid had already given Arsenal plenty to be concerned about, however, Dundalk presented something of an easier opposition for Mikel Arteta and his men and is likely what led to the Spaniard making ten changes from the side that lost 0-1 to Leicester City on Sunday evening, with only Granit Xhaka remaining.
Given Arteta’s penchant for playing with a midfield three, it was somewhat surprising to see what looked like a back three that changed fluidly throughout the match. Granit Xhaka was deployed as an auxiliary central defender, though was able to drop deep into midfield when needed, with a tactic not too dissimilar to Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder’s rotating defender policy.
Though Dundalk represented a slightly less worrying opposition, Arsenal still entered the game reeling from their aforementioned Premier League struggle against Leicester City. In that game, Arsenal’s creativity problems looked to have evaporated in the first-half as Arsenal dominated the away side, however, their creativity ebbed away in the second half, so they would be looking to avoid that where possible on Thursday night.
Much like the match against Leicester, Arsenal created several interesting openings in the first-half but failed to punish where needed. Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Nicolas Pépé found themselves in good areas but lacked the end product that has become somewhat symbiotic of the last two matches.
It wasn’t until the 42nd minute that the game finally had a breakthrough. A mistake from goalkeeper Gary Rodgers led to Eddie Nketiah snapping away the resultant mess in the six-yard box to give the Gunners the lead, with Joe Willock adding a beautifully taken second two minutes later.
Half-time came and went although Arsenal’s goals had perhaps not been the most beautiful, they were nevertheless taken with care and had settled the nerves nicely. Barely forty seconds into the second half, Arsenal had their third as Nicolas Pépé curled a spectacular effort into the top corner with his weaker right foot.
To say the game was killed stone dead would be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was difficult to see just how, if at all, Dundalk were going to make their way back into the game. The visitors only effort had come int he first half with a speculative but encouraging effort whizzing past debutant Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson.
Rùnarsson was not the only debutant on the night, however, as Arsenal introduced Folarian Balogun into the mix. Balogun was perhaps unlucky not to see more of the ball, but Arsenal noticeably took their foot off the proverbial gas following Pépé’s goal and the forward was unable to have much more of an impact, even after the introductions of Ceballos and Willian.
The final whistle blew and Arsenal finished matchday two top of Group B on goal difference.
There was plenty for Mikel Arteta to be happy about, with very few negatives. Arsenal’s youngsters, most notably Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock had been borderline unplayable in Arsenal’s attack, running at the Dundalk defence, attacking as positively as possible and keeping potential blockages at arm’s length. Willock was able to funnel his passes through Arsenal’s right-hand side, but when Pépé and Cédric Soares’ returns looked less than impressive, the young midfielder took the initiative and began to attack himself, leading to more damaging results than before.
Nelson was unlucky not to find himself not on the scoresheet, with several good runs producing genuine space in the middle for Arsenal and had the talismanic Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette been on the field, Arsenal may well have had more than three.
It was also noticeable that Granit Xhaka shifted into the heart of Arsenal’s defence. With the Gunners’ current injury problems and the likely event that Dundalk would likely not threaten too much, Xhaka was a welcome way to keep Arsenal’s team as rotated as possible. Mustafi having returned from injury and Gabriel Magalhães likely being rested for Arsenal’s crunch match against Manchester United on Sunday, it made sense for Arsenal to keep things as refreshed at the back as possible.
Arsenal can be happy with their three points. They were made to work for it by a well-drilled Dundalk defence who will perhaps feel that they were unlucky to come away with such a heavy scoreline against them, but a comprehensive and dominant win to take Arsenal top will give them all the confidence they need as they travel to Salford to play Manchester United on Sunday and then play host to Norwegian side Molde FK on Thursday.
|🏴 Arsenal (Q)||2||2||0||0||5||1||+4||6|
|🇳🇴 Molde FK (Q)||2||2||0||0||3||1||+2||6|
|🇦🇹 SK Rapid Wien||2||0||0||2||1||3||-2||0|
|🇮🇪 Dundalk FC||2||0||0||2||1||5||-5||0|
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
17.) Cédric Soares
20.) Shkodran Mustafi (Ceballos 61’)
34.) Granit Xhaka (c) (Tierney 74’)
31.) Sead Kolašinac
25.) Mohamed Elneny
28.) Joe Willock
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Willian 62’)
24.) Reiss Nelson
30.) Eddie Nketiah (Balogun 74’)
1.) Bernd Leno
44.) Karl Jakob Hein
2.) Héctor Bellerín
3.) Kieran Tierney
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
18.) Thomas Partey
7.) Bukayo Saka
8.) Dani Ceballos
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
38.) Folarian Balogun
Dundalk FC Team:
1.) Gary Rodgers
3.) Brian Gartland
44.) Andy Boyle
21.) Daniel Cleary (Hoare 53’)
8.) John Mountney
16.) Seán Murray (Sloggett 45’)
5.) Chris Shields (Gannon 62’)
11.) Patrick McEleney (Flores 53’)
7.) Michael Duffy (Čolović 70’)
9.) Patrick Hoban
Dundalk FC subs:
20.) Adam McCarey
30.) Jimmy Corcoran
2.) Seán Gannon
4.) Seán Hoare
6.) Jordan Flores
10.) Greg Sloggett
15.) Darragh Leahy
17.) Nathan Oduwa
20.) Aaron McCarey
22.) Stefan Čolović
27.) Daniel Kelly
29.) David McMillan