Eddie Nketiah spearheads Arsenal's three-goal burst in victory over Dundalk

Nick Ames at the Emirates Stadium
·4-min read

Drama-free nights are a rarity in Arsenal’s world so a victory this straightforward will be nothing to sniff at. It may yet have longer-term use, too. Mikel Arteta picked a fringe side to face Dundalk and the challenge to his stand-ins, some of whom have stagnated in recent months, was clear enough. He needed performances that might influence his thinking for higher-octane encounters and in some cases he got them, Joe Willock catching the eye in particular with an all-action display that he crowned with a well-taken goal.

His was the second of three Arsenal scored within 257 seconds either side of half-time, Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pépé striking blows of their own for the deputies. Whether any of them start at Manchester United on Sunday is moot but it was a reminder that Arteta may yet have a credible set of alternatives to banish the torpor that has crept into some of their recent league fare. Given their opponents’ limitations there would be no benefit in going overboard but the job was, by any measure, carried out to the letter.

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“They showed that they are well prepared, they are at it, and they are ready when we need them,” Arteta said of his players. “They made things more difficult for me for selection.” He made 10 changes, Granit Xhaka surviving Sunday’s defeat to Leicester but being sandwiched between Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac in a makeshift back three. When the Dundalk midfielder Patrick McEleney forced Alex Runarsson, Arsenal’s debutant goalkeeper, to tip an early shot wide it appeared they might be in for a test; soon enough, though, their offensive colleagues took centre stage.

A year ago Willock looked one of the most exciting midfield talents in England but the 21-year-old is yet to appear in the Premier League this season and has seemed short on confidence. He was the best player on show here, setting the tone quickly with two thrusting runs down the inside-right area of the box. The second of them brought a centre flashed across the six-yard box; for some time that was as close as Arsenal came but Dundalk, who had initially come to play, were increasingly pegged back and the pressure eventually told.

Nketiah is a born poacher and looked aghast when, six minutes before the interval, he jabbed wide after a Pépé effort had pinballed in front of goal. He soon redeemed himself with a degree of help from Gary Rogers, Dundalk’s 39-year-old keeper, who completely missed his punch on Reiss Nelson’s corner and was stranded when the ball struck his defender Daniel Cleary. It fell perfectly for Nketiah to inflict punishment and, while the striker’s all-round game needs work, the misfiring Alexandre Lacazette may feel less than certain of his starting place at Old Trafford.

Almost immediately Pépé picked up a loose Dundalk pass, made for goal, and saw a shot blocked. Willock took the ball in his stride and finished emphatically. “I said to [Arteta], ‘I want to fight for my position’, and hopefully I get more opportunities like I did today,” Willock said, and he has done himself no harm.

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The often bewildering Pépé helped his own cause when, 30 seconds into the second half, he wrapped his supposedly weaker right foot around the ball and found the top corner after more smart work from Willock. “He’s played quite a lot of moments, some better than others,” said Arteta of the club’s record signing, whose undoubted talent tends to rear up in flashes. “It’s about him hitting his best every single week. I think this is where he believes he can do better and we have to try to help him.”

That goal rendered the final 44 minutes little more than a training game, Arteta giving a debut to the prolific 19-year-old striker Folarin Balogun and the Dundalk manager Filippo Giovagnoli making use of his substitutes before Sunday’s important League of Ireland match with St Patrick’s Athletic.

The visitors had not disgraced themselves but achieved the odd distinction of being the first team in Europa League history not to commit a foul. “Our team is so polite, they are such gentlemen,” Giovagnoli said. There was certainly no danger of a rude awakening for Arteta and his hopefuls.