March 23, 2023


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Young Gunners helps Arsenal to perfect Europa League group stage

3 min read

Eighteen points, 20 goals, no end to the number of questions. Arsenal have torn through their Europa League group and signed off with an entertaining enough win to which a bright Dundalk also contributed positively. Eddie Nketiah, Mohamed Elneny, Joe Willock and Folarin Balogun scored goals that, while bearing the contest’s lack of weight in mind, continued to press the case for a more carefree approach to their nosediving top-flight campaign.

Nketiah’s early goal made a point in both manner and timing. He has not started a Premier League game for more than two months and, while certain aspects of his game require development, Arsenal’s attack has hardly thrived in the meantime. In charging down Andy Boyle’s attempted clearance and running through to chip delicately beyond Gary Rogers, Nketiah demonstrated the kind of aggression and decisive finishing they have lacked. It was hardly an uncharacteristic sequence: Nketiah showed last season that he has form for forcing errors and had pressed Boyle into an ungainly foul moments prior to the opener.

There was not as much to extrapolate from the contribution Elneny made six minutes later, but his 28-yard screamer was no less enjoyable for that. It came after neat work from Emile Smith Rowe, who looked sharp on the left flank in his first start of the season. Smith Rowe cut inside and laid the ball back; Elneny took a touch and beat Rogers all ends up, bulging the top corner of the net and recording his first Arsenal goal in three years.

Perhaps shooting on sight would provide a solution to their domestic problems. Cédric Soares and Ainsley Maitland-Niles both seemed emboldened, forcing Rogers to tip their efforts wide before the interval. But the hosts had fashioned their own moment to cherish by then, Michael Duffy playing Jordan Flores in for a raking drive across Alex Rúnarsson. The goalkeeper might have done better but Flores has form for emphatic finishing and was recently shortlisted for the Puskas award for an acrobatic effort against Shamrock Rovers.

Dundalk would have levelled on half-time had Calum Chambers, another returnee to the starting lineup after injury, not blocked brilliantly when Darragh Leahy looked sure to convert. Five minutes into the second half a more composed final pass from Duffy to one of two onrushing teammates would have brought a similarly promising glimpse.

There was much less between the sides by now, although Smith Rowe continued to pose questions with his ability to find pockets around the box. Arteta had begun to show exasperation at his team’s imprecision when Balogun, who had recently come on for Nketiah, held off his man and squared astutely for Willock to drill low beneath Rogers.

Nketiah had smiled wanly as he walked off. He probably sensed more goals and perhaps knows, too, that Balogun offers serious competition in the long term. The 19-year-old looked assured throughout his cameo and, when Nicolas Pépé laid on a chance, he took it with a confidently swept finish from 12 yards. Sean Hoare had the last word with a smart flicked header for Dundalk, and Arsenal must now work out how to make youthful vigour pay off when it matters.

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