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.”
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.
“He created some great moments in the game and worked really hard for the team,” the Gunners boss added. “I really liked it. I am really pleased with that.
“We all know where his level is and all the time the question is how often he can get to that level – and how he contributes to other aspects of the game.
“Today is the example. That should be the level he needs to hit and from there he needs to keep improving.”
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.
Gunners find form in Norway
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.
Pepe’s strike gave Arsenal’s youthful side an injection of confidence and, after a dearth of goals in their previous two fixtures, suddenly Arteta’s side looked dangerous with every attack.
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.
Pepe a standout in Europa League – the stats
Arsenal have won their opening four group matches in a European campaign for the first time since the 2005-06 season (in the Champions League, when they reached the final).
Norwegian sides have lost their last five home meetings with English sides in all European competition by an aggregate score of 0-14.
Since beating Sheffield United 2-1 at the start of October, 12 of Arsenal’s 13 goals in all competitions have come in the Europa League, with the exception being Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty at Old Trafford in the Premier League.
Nicolas Pepe has been directly involved in nine goals in his 10 Europa League games for Arsenal (5 goals & 4 assists), netting in each of his last three appearances in the competition.
All four of Reiss Nelson’s goals for Arsenal have come in different competitions (Europa League, Premier League, FA Cup & League Cup).
Folarin Balogun scored with his first ever attempt for Arsenal’s senior team.
Arsenal are home to Wolves on Sunday at 19:15 GMT, before hosting Rapid Vienna in their penultimate Europa League group game next Thursday (20:00).