It would have been understandable if Arsenal fans had been nervous going into last night’s game against Dundalk. Having come unstuck in frustrating fashion against Leicester this weekend, and having failed to put down a marker with a win away at Manchester City on the 17th, Arsenal are a side whose early-season optimism could easily have faded in recent weeks.
This was the perfect antidote. A chance to face weaker opposition, at home, and an opportunity for certain players to prove that they have what it takes to step up and solve Arsenal’s problems in other competitions. Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, and, to a lesser extent, Nicholas Pepe, were such players. They were all impressive, but none more so than Joe Willock.
The midfielder lined up in what looked to be a 3-4-3, partnering Mohamed Elneny in the centre of midfield, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Cedric Soares on the flanks. But, as he has tended to do under Mikel Arteta, Maitland-Niles found himself frequently venturing further up the pitch and tucking in, acting as the third midfielder. It is something of a classic Arteta move, and it allowed both the team to have more control, and Joe Willock to venture further forward and affect the game in the final third, and stake his claim for a starting spot against Manchester United on Sunday.
The midfielder popped up with the team’s second goal and an assist for Pepe’s stunner, but it was his creative spark and attacking drive that would be most useful to Arteta against United. He made a habit of breaking into the channel between Arsenal’s striker and winger, and combined well with Pepe on the right on numerous occasions. It allowed Arsenal to have the creativity and the penetration that they have lacked of late, and Arsenal looked like a team that posed a threat throughout.
That is borne out by the stats, which show Willock making the joint most key passes in the squad along with Soares, at an accuracy of 91.1%. He also chipped in with one accurate cross for Nicholas Pepe in the first half, along with a successful dribble and two shots on target out of three. It was a man of the match performance, and felt like a marker for the 21-year-old.
Granted, this was Dundalk, and Manchester United, fresh from their resounding win in the Champions League and an impressive victory against PSG in the last round, will be a much sterner test. But Arsenal’s youngsters showcased their drive and energy last night, which is exactly what Arsenal have been lacking, with Willock looking a solid choice to step into the creative void. Manchester United’s defence is shaky, and if Willock puts in a similar performance on Sunday, Arsenal stand a much better chance of getting a result.
Author: Ben Kitto
Photo credit: Chensiyuan, 2018