These outings have the feel of learning opportunities for Mikel Arteta, showing him who of his squad’s lesser lights may be capable of stepping up when the stakes are higher.
Fringe players need to shine in Europa League group games and it was encouraging to see Nicolas Pépé and Joe Willock do so again at this level, helping Arsenal edge closer to reaching the knockout stages with a win over Molde that was not quite as comfortable as it looked.
Arsenal had toiled for much of a tepid first half, fashioning few chances and falling behind to an avoidable goal. By the end, though, a slog had turned into a stroll. Arsenal were too good once they found a sharper tempo and Willock, who also caught the eye in last week’s win over Dundalk, was central to the fightback, driving forward from midfield to force two Molde own goals.
Willock even finished with a goal of his own, taking a pass from Pépé before smashing high into the net to add gloss to Arsenal’s third win from three games in Group B. It was a fine display from the 21-year-old midfielder and it should not be long before Arteta hands him his first appearance of the season in the Premier League. “He was really strong,” the Arsenal manager said. “The way he is approaching every opportunity shows his maturity.”
Arteta, switching focus to Pépé, spoke about consistency after being asked how the stand-ins can break into his strongest side. The winger can make a difference, particularly when he cuts on to his left foot, but he can also be wayward and is unlikely to change Arteta’s mind on the basis of a goal and a decent performance against Molde.
All the same Pépé was one of Arsenal’s better players during a sloppy opening period. A shortage of invention has been a problem this season and Arteta, constantly bellowing instructions to his players about their positioning, must have been concerned by the lethargy of his side’s play.
Perhaps it might have been a different type of game had an early chance for Eddie Nketiah led to the opening goal. It was Pépé who created the opening, pushing the ball through, and Nketiah must have thought he had done enough after turning his shot past Molde’s goalkeeper, Andreas Linde, only for Martin Bjørnbak to deny the Arsenal striker by sliding back to clear off the line.
Arsenal produced little after that opening. Willian looked frustrated on the left and Arsenal’s task became awkward after they fell behind. It came when a Bernd Leno clearance led to a loss of possession in midfield, with Molde quick to recycle the ball out to Martin Ellingsen on the right. Ellingsen cut on to his left foot and caught Leno cold with a bending effort from 30 yards.
Leno was slow to react, allowing the ball to creep inside his right post and Arsenal briefly had a problem. As the half wore on they began to move to a sharper beat. Nketiah was unlucky to have a low finish from a Pépé cross ruled out for an offside against Willock.
Molde had grown more ambitious, almost doubling their lead when Ohi Omoijuanfo tested Leno at his near post. But a willingness to send more players forward invited danger and Arsenal pounced in first-half stoppage time, winning possession and tearing upfield. Willian opened up space and Granit Xhaka found Nketiah, whose low centre ended up being bundled into his own net by Kristoffer Haugen under pressure from Willock.
Arsenal emerged with more intent after the break and should have led when Linde flapped at a cross. The goalkeeper’s blushes were spared because Sead Kolasinac produced an astonishing miss, scooping over the empty net.
Yet Arsenal had sorted themselves out. Xhaka advanced again, carving Molde open with a chip to Willock, whose centre went in off the substitute, Sheriff Sinyan, for another own goal.
Arsenal were enjoying themselves. Bukayo Saka came on and quickly made an impact, pulling back from the left for Pépé to score. Molde had collapsed and there was time for Willock, released by Pépé, to make his point with an emphatic finish.