Nketiah spearheads Arsenal’s three-goal burst to spare blushes against Dundalk | Europa League

For a side that has looked laboured in recent weeks, Arsenal rattled through the gears when it mattered. They overwhelmed Dundalk, who were by no means disgraced, by scoring three goals within 257 seconds either side of half-time and the runout may prove useful in playing some of their fringe men into form.

Joe Willock was the best player on the pitch and doubled their lead emphatically after Eddie Nketiah had broken the deadlock; Nicolas Pépé then provided another flash of his undoubted ability with an excellent third and Arsenal were able to see out a drama-free night before a more consequential test against Manchester United.

Dundalk had been expected to sit back, which would have been a particularly tempting option given Arsenal’s recent difficulties against deep-lying opponents. But Mikel Arteta’s decision to make 10 changes from the defeat to Leicester was enough to encourage some ambition; the only survivor from Sunday’s starting lineup was Granit Xhaka, stationed at the heart of an unfamiliar back three between Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi, while Alex Rúnarsson was given a debut in goal.

Rúnarsson was pressed into early action, turning a skidding 25-yarder from Patrick McEleney behind at full stretch. The ball was probably going wide but it reflected a confident start from the League of Ireland side, who were not afraid to build from the back. Their manager, Filippo Giovagnoli, a novice when he took the job two months ago, had feared being exiled to the stands due to his lack of a Uefa Pro Licence but won a late reprieve and had soon covered most blades of his technical area.

Soon enough Arsenal took control. In front of their defence was a clutch of players with points to prove. Willock has been in danger of regressing over the past year; but he made two early bursts for the byline, one of them resulting in a fizzed ball across the six-yard box. It says little for Pépé’s overall impact in the past 15 months that this is deemed his stage but he flashed a decent header over from a Kolasinac cross. Reiss Nelson has virtually disappeared from view this season but he cut inside and fired a daisycutter wide of Gary Rogers’ near post.

Arsenal were getting closer, Rogers tipping over a Kolasinac header before Nketiah stabbed wide from the kind of poacher’s position in which he usually thrives. He was able to put that right soon enough and it was a traumatic moment for Rogers, the 39-year-old Dundalk keeper. When Nelson delivered a 42nd minute corner from the left, he attempted to get a fist on the ball but missed completely. It struck an unwitting Daniel Cleary and fell perfectly for Nketiah to resume normal service.

Within two minutes the match had, in effect, been wrapped up. Pépé seized on a loose pass, headed towards goal and saw his shot blocked; Willock, an impressive performer all half, took the loose ball in his stride and thrashed a fine finish above Rogers.

At half-time Giovagnoli might have hoped his side could yet pose Arsenal a question or two. But within 30 seconds of the restart the only live issue was how many more goals the home side might score. Another burst from Willock, enjoying himself in the inside-right channel, brought a pass inside that was intended for Nelson. Instead Pépé took charge and, applying the kind of flourish for which his left foot is better known, brilliantly found the top corner with his right from 20 yards.

All that remained was for both sides to, for their own reasons, find ways to bolster morale. Giovagnoli had made a point before the game of prioritising this weekend’s visit to St Patrick’s Athletic and duly rattled through the substitutions. Pépé was given the final half-hour off having at least given Arteta, who made a point of offering praise as he departed, a decision to make regarding his involvement at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Nketiah lifted over after more incisive work from Willock. He was then replaced by Folarin Balogun, a 19-year-old who has scored prolifically at age-group levels and attracted serious interest from other Premier League clubs. Balogun’s introduction may have long-term significance even if there was not to be a debut goal, and Arteta will be satisfied enough that others did plenty to stake their claim.

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