Football Features

Arsenal 3-0 Dundalk: “Willock lit the fuse that fired the Gunners to victory”

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:15, 29 October 2020 | Updated: 9:41, 30 March 2021

In an entertaining night of Europa League football, Arsenal thrashed Dundalk at the Emirates Stadium.

Mikel Arteta made a massive amount of changes to his XI but his young back-ups managed to stand out each in their own way.

All eyes were on Nicolas Pepe coming into this game. The £72m man was put in from the start with the inferior opposition of Dundalk providing him with a good chance to get his season going after some underwhelming displays.

And sure enough Pepe did score an absolute scorcher of a strike from the edge of the box with his right-foot. A goal fit to grace any occasion and definitely the headline-grabbing moment of the game. The roll to set the ball, the purity of the strike with his weak foot. Sublime.

But the winger didn’t really play well, failing to complete a single take-on, won 0 tackles, took 5 shots to score his 1 goal (and that goal was the only shot that hit the target) and turned over possession a staggering 18 times (the game high was 19, and the players who did that played an extra 30 minutes more).

There was also Reiss Nelson. In a pre-match interview Mikel Arteta had commented on Nelson’s future. “We had a few plans in mind with Reiss,” Arteta said. “One of them was to send him on loan to get more minutes because of the competition we have up front.”

“The reality is he has been really good in training. He wants to stay here. He wants to fight for his place,” and sure enough, Nelson started against Dundalk and looked bright. He didn’t get any goal or assists, but he did create 2 chances, have 3 shots and complete 2 take-ons.

Nelson looked bright, especially once Pepe went off, and it was his corner that led to Arsenal taking the lead through Eddie Nketiah. Speaking of Nketiah… the striker was profligate. Raining 7 shots down on the Dundalk goal, like Pepe he only hit the target once as a corner spilled to him unmarked.

The real star of the night wasn’t even debutant goalkeeper Runar Runarsson because he just had nothing to do. No, the star of the night and the man who stole Pepe and Nelson’s thunder was Joe Willock, the 21-year-old midfielder who has been at Arsenal since he was four yet hasn’t played a single second in the Premier League so far this season.

Willock played at the heart of midfield next to Mohamed Elneny, and he could have played it very safe, rotating possession and letting the forwards do their thing. But Willock took the game by the scruff of the neck and was constantly pushing the Gunners forward with delightful positional play and ambitious play.

Willock also scored the second goal of the game to give Arsenal a degree of comfort and control. With Pepe in possession atop the box, Willock makes a run outside him into space, a perfect run for Pepe to play him in. But the winger shot instead, but luckily the shot was blocked and ricocheted into Willock’s path. He took one touch to dead it and then thundered the ball into the net. A sublime finish.

In the end Willock (and Nelson) did give the ball away 19 times, the most on the night, but he did it in the name of keeping the tempo high and Dundalk penned back in their box. Willock created 3 chances (a joint game-high) and completed 3/5 take-ons (a game-high). He was the driving force behind Arsenal’s attack, and given how stoic the regular Arsenal XI can look, how devoid of exactly Willock’s kind of impetus they can be, one cannot help but wonder if Joe Willock has played his way into Mikel Arteta’s thinking.

Not just for this Sunday against Manchester United, but in general going forward as a regular member of the first-team squad. Not a regular starter, but certainly someone that the Gunners could use to push the tempo against obdurate, defensive sides.

All of Arsenal’s youngsters shone somehow, but Willock was the one who lit the fuse that fired the Gunners to victory.