On the side that looked tired in recent weeks, Arsenal Shook through gears when it matters. They beat Dundalk, who was by no means disgraced, by scoring three goals in 257 seconds on either side of the first half, and the answer may prove helpful in playing with some of their fringe men.
Joe Willock was the best player on the field and his lead categorically doubled up after Eddie Nikitiah broke the deadlock. Then Nicolas Pepe gave another flash of his undoubted ability with an excellent third and Arsenal managed to watch a drama-free night before a more important test against Manchester United.
Dundalk was expected to sit down, which would have been a particularly tempting choice given the difficulties Arsenal has faced recently against two deeper rivals. But Mikel Arteta’s decision to make 10 changes from Defeat Leicester It was enough to encourage some ambition. The only survivor of Sunday’s starting line-up was Granit Shaka, positioned in the uncommon three center backs between Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi, while Alex Runarson got his first goal appearance.
Rúnarsson was pressed into early action, turning 25 yards off Patrick McEleney in the back with full span. The ball may have been moving away but it reflected a confident start from the Irish League side, which was not afraid to build from behind. Their manager, Filippo Giovanioli, was a rookie when he took office two months ago, fearful of being banished to the stands due to his lack of a Uefa Pro license but he got a late deferral and quickly covered most aspects of his artistic field.
Soon Arsenal took control. Their defense had a group of players who had points to prove. Wheelock has run the risk of falling back over the past year; But he did two early bursts for the secondary streak, one of which resulted in a sparkling ball across the six-yard square. It doesn’t tell us much about the overall impact of Pepe over the past 15 months that this is his stage but he threw a good header from a cross from Kolasinak. Reiss Nelson has virtually disappeared from view this season, but cut inside and fired a trigger off target close to Gary Rogers.
Arsenal was getting close, and Rogers would flip a header from Kolasinac before he stabbed Nketiah on a large scale from the usually-thriving hunter position. He managed to correct that soon and it was a sore moment for Rogers, the 39-year-old Dundalk keeper. When Nelson gave a corner kick in the 42nd minute from the left, he tried to get a grip on the ball but missed completely. She was inadvertently shocked by Daniel Cleary and completely fell for Nikitia to resume normal service.
Within two minutes the match was actually over. Bibi gave a loose pass, headed towards the goal and saw his shot block; Willock, the superb performer throughout the first half, took the loose ball in his stride and netted a superb finish over Rogers.
In the first half, Giovanioli might have been hoping his team would pose a question or two to Arsenal. But within 30 seconds of restarting, the only live issue was the number of extra goals the home team might score. Another blast from Willock, amusing the right inner channel, brought in a pass that was meant for Nelson. Instead, Pépé took charge, applying the kind of boom that his left foot was famous for, masterfully finding the top right corner from 20 yards.
All that remains is for both sides to find, for reasons of their own, ways to boost morale. Giovanioli had placed a point ahead of the match in prioritizing this weekend’s visit to St Patrick’s Athletic and duly made during substitutions. Pépé was given his last half hour of rest after at least he gave Arteta, who had drawn praise upon his departure, a decision about his participation at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Nikitia quits after more steadfast work from Willock. Then he was replaced by Folarin Balogun, a 19-year-old who has scored massively in the age groups and attracted serious interest from other Premier League clubs. Balogun’s introduction might have long-term significance even if there was no goal for the first time, and Arteta would be satisfied enough that others did too much to risk their claim.
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