LONDON — Arsenal made heavy weather of their path to nine points from nine in the Europa League group stages but a brace of own goals and a fine strike from Nicolas Pepe earned them a 4-1 win over Molde at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday.

Though Mikel Arteta’s side dominated possession early in the game, they came up against familiar problems breaking down a low block, registering just a solitary shot in the first 22 minutes before Martin Ellingsen curled a fantastic strike past Bernd Leno.

Frustration appeared to be growing in north London until a breakaway led by Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock forced an own goal by Kristoffer Haugen moments before the break. Arsenal exerted much greater dominance in the second half, Willock forcing a second own goal, this one from Sheriff Sinyan, before Pepe wrapped up the three points on the hour.

The excellent Willock got the goal his play thoroughly merited just before time as Arsenal secured a victory that puts them in the driving seat in Group B.

Catch up with the key talking points below …

How does Willian solve Arsenal’s problems?

In the 43rd minute, Joe Willock carried the ball up the field for Arsenal. As Arteta urged the youngster to spread the ball, wide he obliged, picking out Willian on the right flank. The pass was right in his path but perhaps lacked a bit of pace. Still, whatever was wrong with the delivery it is hard to understand how it elicited such an angry reaction from a usually composed player.

Rather than advance toward the pass, the Brazilian threw up his hands in exasperation and confusion before waiting for the ball to eventually come his way. It rather brought to mind the moment in last season’s competition when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had berated Joe Willock for an overhit through ball.

The difference, and it is a significant one, is that if that pass had been right for Aubameyang, then Arsenal would probably have scored. When Willian did eventually take possession, he ended up driving into a blind alley and appealing for a debatable free-kick. 

Memories of his excellent debut against Fulham are fading fast for Willian, in the seven games since he does not have an assist to his name and few occasions where he has successfully beaten an opponent or accelerated Arsenal’s stodgy play. Indeed all too often he seems to be a chief proponent of it, checking infield and taking more touches than necessary.

This is all the more troublesome for Arsenal when they justified signing a 32-year-old, giving him the third year on his contract that Chelsea wouldn’t, because he would make an immediate impact. With years of success in the Premier League behind him, he was supposed to be a plug and play veteran in an attack with many long-term developmental pieces. Willian said last week that he is still struggling to grasp what Arteta wants from him. One wonders whether by the time he is up to speed he will be further diminished as a player.

Looking for more on Thursday’s Europa League action? Listen to CBS Sports’ Que Golazo! podcast for a full breakdown:

Arteta’s curious demands

Trying to pin down Arteta’s system to anything as simple as a formation is a challenge even when he is playing his strongest sides. Arsenal’s attacking approach is, at times, so fluid that assigning a set position to one player is rather like attempting to staple water.

In theory, that sounds like an effective way to play football and at times it is, especially when you have players as shrewd and versatile as Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. With others, you sense Arteta is overcomplicating beyond their skillset.

Take Sead Kolasinac, an excellent wing-back on the front foot with the strength and speed to get to the byline and cut back for an onrushing striker. What he is not is an inverted full-back who can tuck inside and offer an extra body in central midfield.

Yet for a curious spell of a few minutes in the second half that is exactly what Arteta asked him to do, constantly shouting “Kola inside” while Granit Xhaka dropped deep to function as a third center-back. The logic for asking a full-back to tuck into midfield is to allow a team to dominate possession in central areas but it needs players who can keep it effectively.

Even Kolasinac himself might accept that his ball-playing is not his best quality and it was clear from the outset that it is was not an experiment that would last. It is hard to see what convinced Arteta that Kolasinac in such a role was a hypothesis worth testing in the first place.

Notable performances

Nicolas Pepe: Much like Willian on the other flank, Pepe too often seemed to slow Arsenal down just when they needed propulsion. And yet then there are flashes of real talent, take his drag back and cross in the build-up for an Eddie Nketiah goal that was incorrectly called offside and the curling strike he slammed into the bottom corner from Bukayo Saka’s cutback. Arteta’s challenge is to make these moments the norm, rather than the wasted moments. RATING: 6

Etzaz Hussain: The midfielder put in an excellent shift as Molde looked to retain their foothold in the match, winning a string of battles and six tackles. RATING: 7

Joe Willock: His aggression and work rate in the final third got their rewards as he forced both own goals before finally striking one for himself in the 88th minute after a smart dart into the box. This was another impressive game for Willock, who is grasping his opportunities in this competition. RATING: 8

Up next

Arsenal host Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday whilst Molde face Kristiansund at home. These two sides meet again in Norway on Nov. 26.


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