Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta has faced his fair share of criticism after dropping Mesut Ozil from his Europa League and Premier League squads, but Thursday night’s win over Dundalk proved he made the right decision over the German playmaker.
Arteta named a completely different line-up on Thursday night by making ten changes for the Europa League tie.
Senior stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Thomas Partey were all left out in favour of younger players.
Nicolas Pepe, who has struggled for game time this season, was handed a start and repaid Arteta’s faith with a moment of magic in the second half.
With the Gunners 2-0 up, the Ivory Coast international was handed the ball on the edge of the area on his favoured left foot.
Pepe rolled his foot over the ball a few times before switching it to his weaker right foot and lashing his shot towards goal.
Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers was powerless to stop the ball soaring past him into the top corner of the net, giving Pepe his second goal of the season in all competitions.
His goal was a pure moment of magic, and seemed to come out of nowhere.
Moments of individual brilliance have been somewhat lacking at Arsenal recently, and that was one of the main criticisms Arteta faced when he axed Ozil, who is capable of producing such star quality.
But by producing something out of nothing, Pepe could well have eased the pressure on Arteta in that sense.
Arteta will have been desperate for his players to step up in the absence of Ozil and start creating chances for themselves, and Thursday night’s win was the perfect example of that coming into effect.
Something that was noticeable from Arsenal’s style of play against Dundalk was their desire to get the ball forward and test Rogers in the Dundalk goal.
Reiss Nelson in particular, who started on the right wing in a very attacking line-up, was a constant problem for the Irish side.
He was given the freedom to dribble with the ball and express his footwork in order to beat defenders, and was a nuisance throughout the game.
He was one of a number of youngsters brought into the side, as Arsenal’s young blood laid down a statement of intent amid a congested fixture calendar.
In the middle of the park, Joe Willock played on the right-hand-side of a midfield three – likely the position Ozil would have been played in had he been included.
The 21-year-old was always looking to get forward and join the attack, but refused to neglect his defensive responsibilities.
He rounded off a solid game with his first goal of the season for the Gunners, a fine finish after he pounced on a loose ball inside the area.
Because of his constant pressing and desire to be part of the attack, he was able to drift around to the back post and was in oceans of space as Pepe’s initial shot ricocheted into the air.
He had the time to bring the ball down before shimmying onto his right foot and blasting into the roof of the net.
Arteta should be delighted after Thursday night’s win, although Dundalk aren’t the most elite of opponents, he will know he has a comfortably strong squad capable of tackling the congested fixture calendar.
And thanks to Pepe and Willock, he might also be breathing a sigh of relief over his Ozil decision, too.
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