As Arsenal headed into matchday three, there was plenty to be cheerful about. The Gunners sat top of Group B with six points and had just come off the back of their first win at Old Trafford in fourteen years.
It, therefore, came as no surprise to see Arsenal in a boisterous mood heading into the match, with Mikel Arteta making nine changes from the side that beat Manchester United on Sunday evening, with Bernd Leno and Willian the only two players retaining their spots. Elsewhere, Granit Xhaka returned to the side as captain.
Molde had been in pretty red hot form in Group B coming into the match, with three goals scored and only one conceded.
Arsenal started the game with a high-intensity as they had against Leicester City and Dundalk, but with the same issues that prevailed in those two matches, a lack of end product.
Nicolas Pépé looked to be the main culprit of this, as he struggled to make his way down the right-hand side, with most if not all of his attempted take-ons being easily stopped by the Molde defence. Pépé’s moves seemed to work best when he attempted to play inside, often linking well with the once-again impressive Joe Willock.
But for all of Arsenal’s attacking intent, it was the away side that broke the deadlock. Leno’s hastily cleared kick was snapped up in midfield and Molde broke forward. Wolff Eikrem’s ball into Martin Ellingsen broke the defensive line and Leno’s positioning was exposed as Ellingsen curled a terrific effort into the far corner to give the away side the lead.
It wasn’t the start that Mikel Arteta or Arsenal would have wanted, but Arsenal’s persistence showed good signs of healthy attacking intent. Switching Willian on to the right-hand side and Pépé on to the left, seemed to give Arsenal a renewed vigour and soon Pépé’s inch-perfect pass found it’s way to Eddie Nketiah whose subsequent goal was incorrectly ruled out for offside, perhaps an advert for why UEFA’s decision to remove VAR from the group-stages could be a costly one.
But it didn’t take long for Arsenal to regain their foothold in the game. Three minutes later, Arsenal broke forward with lightening-quick precision, Pépé feeding Willian who released the unlikely figure of Granit Xhaka, who laid it off beautifully for Nketiah who then fed Joe Willock, but before the England midfielder could get a touch, it had already been rolled in by Kristoffer Haugen and the home side drew level.
In the second half, it was pretty much one-way traffic. While Molde would be happy with a previous one point away to the best side in the group, Arsenal were not resting on their laurels and added a second to their tally in the 62nd minute.
Xhaka and Willock playing a lovely one-two on the edge of the box led to Willock crossing the ball and it being turned into the Molde net by substitute Sheriff Sinyan.
From there, Arsenal attacked Molde with more intensity, especially with the introduction of youngster Bukayo Saka, who six minutes after entering the field of play, set up a lovely finish for Pépé for Arsenal’s third.
Pépé’s presence on the field after scoring his goal was perhaps a little unexpected, especially given the importance of Arsenal’s match against Aston Villa on Sunday in a notoriously busy and injury-filled festive period, but the Ivorian made use of his time on the field with a well-executed pass into the path of Willock who rounded off the Gunners’ evening in style.
It was a good evening’s work for Arteta and his men, but the team’s rather startling lack of end-product is a worry. Though Arsenal don’t need to be too vexed as they were playing a number of players who likely won’t be playing in the weekend’s run of fixtures, it does seem to be something of a worrying theme in all competitions.
Against Leicester City, Arsenal had looked decidedly average in front of goal, despite boasting the attacking threat of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Saka, Alexandre Lacazette and Dani Ceballos and they had looked much the same against Molde.
Though Arsenal seemed to sort the issue out in the second-half, their luck against Molde’s low-block had been manly down to Molde being forced to remove Stian Rode Gregersen, their best defender, which allowed Arsenal more penetrative attacks.
Many will point to the two own goals scored as an example of how flat-footed Arsenal’s attack had looked, but Arsenal would have likely scored from these attempted regardless as the goals came about mainly through Molde’s intent on tight man-marking.
It was yet another disappointing evening for Nicolas Pépé. Though many will point out that a goal and an assist is unlikely to constitute a bad game, it was still one of the Ivory Coast international’s worst matches in an Arsenal shirt so far. Pépé struggled against the Molde backline and struggled to really offer much by way of a general threat although Arteta’s decision to trade flanks with Willian did prove to be a good choice.
Though Pépé is not responsible for the £72m fee that Unai Emery and Raül Sanllehí decided to spend on the winger, it is fair to say that he has not entirely lived up to the promise that he showed at Lille and has struggled to adapt to Mikel Arteta’s gameplan.
A convincing victory in the end for Arsenal as they pull clear from the pack at the top of Group B, as the attention now turns to Aston Villa on Sunday evening.
|🏴 Arsenal (Q)||3||3||0||0||9||2||+7||9|
|🇳🇴 Molde FK (Q)||3||2||0||1||4||5||-1||6|
|🇦🇹 SK Rapid Wien||3||1||0||2||5||6||-1||3|
|🇮🇪 Dundalk FC||3||0||0||3||4||9||-5||0|
1.) Bernd Leno
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Cédric Soares 63’)
23.) David Luiz
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
31.) Sead Kolašinac
34.) Granit Xhaka (c) (Tierney 80’)
8.) Dani Ceballos (Elneny 80’)
28.) Joe Willock
12.) Willian (Saka 64’)
19.) Nicolas Pépé
30.) Eddie Nketiah
13.) Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
33.) Matt Macey
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
2.) Héctor Bellerín
17.) Cédric Soares
3.) Kieran Tierney
18.) Thomas Partey
25.) Mohamed Elneny
7.) Bukayo Saka
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
9.) Alexandre Lacazette
Molde FK Team:
1.) Andreas Linde
20.) Henry Wingo
2.) Martin Bjørnbak
6.) Stian Rode Gregersen (Sinyan 45’)
28.) Kristoffer Haugen
17.) Fredrik Aursnes
16.) Etzaz Hussain
11.) Martin Ellingsen (Moström 86’)
7.) Magnus Wolff Eikrem (c) (Brynhildsen 74′)
30.) Mathis Bolly (Knudtzon 63’)
99.) Ohi Omoijuanfo (James 74’)
Molde FK Subs:
12.) Álex Craninx
26.) Mathias Eriksen Ranmark
3.) Birk Risa
5.) Sheriff Sinyan
27.) Marcus Holmgren Pedersen
10.) Leke James
15.) Tobias Christensen
14.) Erling Knudtzon
22.) Ola Brynhildsen
9.) Mattias Moström