Mikel Arteta has challenged Nicolas Pepe to improve his consistency after the Arsenal winger reacted to Sunday’s red card against Leeds by helping the Gunners to cruise into the last 32 of the Europa League. Pepe was accused by manager Arteta of letting down his team-mates after being sent off at Elland Road in the Premier League but Arsenal’s record signing responded with the opening goal in a fine individual display against Molde. The £72m signing from Lille curled a powerful strike into the top corner just after the break in Norway – having minutes earlier struck the bar. “I could see from the first minute, from his body language, that he was ready to act,” Arteta said. “I think he had a great performance.” Folarin Balogun scored with his first ever attempt for Arsenal’s senior team.
Pepe has struggled for consistency since joining in 2019 but now has three goals in four Europa League games this season – and Arteta wants more of the same. The victory over Molde in Norway maintained Arsenal’s perfect record in Group B and saw them progress to the knockout stage with two games to spare. Reiss Nelson doubled the Gunners’ lead shortly after with a tap-in from close range, before 19-year-old substitute Folarin Balogun, who was making his second appearance for the club, scored with his first touch of the game. An away game in wintry Norway might not have seemed an ideal fixture for Arteta and Arsenal to face after a modest performance in the draw against Leeds and a sobering 3-0 home defeat by Aston Villa in the Premier League.
But Pepe, red-carded for a headbutt on Ezgjan Alioski on Sunday, looked keen to repay Arteta’s pre-match words of support with a bright performance. The former Lille winger’s first moment of threat came when he sprinted down the left and cut inside to make space for a shot but fired over the bar. He got closer with his next effort from outside the area as his curling drive hit the crossbar with Molde goalkeeper Linde beaten. The club’s record signing, who will now start the first of his three-match domestic ban against Wolves, eventually got his third goal in the Europa League this season with a neat piece of control and shot.
Nelson, who turns 21 in December, was a bright note from the start at the Arker Stadium as he linked up well with captain Alexandre Lacazette and got an early effort on target. The winger was rewarded for his persistence as he doubled the advantage from the six-yard box and then Balogun, linked with a move from Arsenal in the summer, staked his claim for a new contract by scoring on only his second appearance for the Gunners.