A spirited hardworking and well organised Dundalk were undone in seven minutes either side of the half as Arsenal exploited lapses in concentration and the finest of opportunities to make it two wins out of two in the Europa League Group B.
For Dundalk, the game plan that had been working so well against in reality a far superior side was undone following a brace of goals that Dundalk didn’t deserve to concede and a stunning goal from Pepe to ensure a shock was not on the cards despite Dundalk’s best efforts to get one.
Dundalk made three changes to the side that narrowly lost to Molde last week with Boyle, Dummigan and McEleney in for Gannon, Leahy and Sloggett. Dundalk opted for a 5-3-2 formation with Mountney and Dummigan deployed as wing-backs and in a surprise move, Michael Duffy was moved up top to partner Patrick Hoban.
Dundalk started the brighter. Holding a defensive line with a tight back five as well as smothering the Arsenal attack, it meant that when Dundalk got the ball they attacked with pace on the counter-attack. They got an early break from Chris Shields who fed the ball to Michael Duffy who saw him cut inside to Patrick McEleney and his long-range effort forced a save from Arsenal keeper Rúnarsson. Murrays resulting corner was well caught by the keeper.
Arsenal began to show their teeth with Cedric Suarez having a chance on the edge of the area but his effort blazed over, an extra touch and a bit more composure he could have had tested Gary Rogers. Pepe was next with an opportunity on goal, his curling effort was high and didn’t cause Dundalk any issues but it showed that the threat that Arsenal will pose during the course of the game.
Moments later it looked as if Arsenal had made the breakthrough but for a last-ditch tackle by Andy Boyle to force a corner.
Arsenal continued to keep the pressure on a Dundalk side that remained compact particular in wide areas which forced several corners, Dundalk’s defence kept strong and resolute at all times, Filippo Giovagnoli’s game plan of ensuring that concentration in defence was paramount and at this stage going it was according to plan. Arsenal was looking more and more frustrated by the Spartan style defence of ensuring that they would not pass.
Arsenals had another great chance when Nelson after a quick one-two he let fly from the edge of the area but it just flashed wide of Gary Rogers post.
Dundalk made the most of the counter-attacking with a fantastic break after undertaking a solid period of pressure, it began and ended with Sean Murray when he broke free of the midfield and John Mountney out on the right crossed it in however Murray’s attempt at volley went wrong, it fell to Chris Shields who shot took a deflection for a corner.
Gary Rogers then pulled off a fantastic save to deny Sean Kolasinac after the initial cross went over everyone and at the back post-Sean Kolasinac had a free header but Rogers tipped it over.
Arsenal continued to threaten when a corner sent in which was initially cleared by Boyle came back in and when it looked as if it was going in Rogers and the Dundalk defence hold firm as Nketiah’s shot just went wide of the post.
Arsenal’s persistence paid off from a corner just before half time. It was sent in and Rogers elected to come and he just didn’t get to the ball, it took an unfortunate bounce off Cleary and Nketiah was on hand to pounce to open the scoring for the home side. They got their second minutes later after a poor pass from Cameron Dummigan meant Nketia fed the ball to Pepe and then onto Willock and he fired it into the roof of the net.
It’s the hope that kills you.
Dundalk was punished by two costly errors, the sign in the step-up in class as they face the highest-ranked team in this competition.
Dundalk barely had a second to breathe when Pepe struck just thirty seconds in the second half.
The talented midfielder beat off the attentions of Boyle and Gartland to curl a stunning finish in the top corner. Dundalk’s half time team talk went out the window before they even had a chance to implement it.
Dundalk had a chance to respond when they got a free kick in a very advantageous position and Gartland headed towards goal and he got the height but not the power needed to test the Arsenal defence.
Dundalk’s second half was compounded with the injury to Patrick McEleney and Dundalk had to introduce Sean Hoare and Jordan Flores into the game as well as Greg Sloggett. Arsenal continued to press and Dundalk continued to hold firm despite the scoreline.
One of the most surprising changes on the night was the departure of Captain Chris Shields midway through the second half. With one eye on St. Patricks Athletic on Sunday, it shows that domestic priorities overweighed the current European adventure at this present time.
Arsenal got close to a fourth when a ball was sent into the area by Willock, both Boyle and Rogers committed to the ball however it evaded them both and just went wide. Nketiah had a chance for a second goal on the night after a clever cut-back was met by the striker in the area but his effort went high over the bar.
Following a foul on Mountney by Willian, Pat Hoban tried his luck from distance however the free-kick was always rising and over the bar.
Reiss Nelson was close to adding a fourth but his curling effort had the height and pace but it went wide of Rogers far right post.
In reality, the game was over just thirty seconds in the second half. But Dundalk was solid and hardworking throughout the game, it was just seven minutes where Arsenal exploited the lapse in concentration. Dundalk’s discipline and resolve were shown that they didn’t commit a single foul in the game.
Dundalk have lost games 3-0 before and they will do so again but this one will go down as one they can be proud of, better teams have lost to higher scorelines to this Arsenal side. Eight years ago Dundalk was fighting for their lives, tonight we were spoiled to a night where we dared to dream.
Perspective for now as St. Patricks is what awaits us next if we want more nights like this we need to look after our domestic affairs.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers, John Mountney, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Daniel Cleary, Cameron Dummigan, Patrick McEleney, Chris Shields, Sean Murray, Michael Duffy, Patrick Hoban.
Subs: Aaron McCarey, Jimmy Corcoran, Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, Jordan Flores, Greg Sloggett, Darragh Leahy, Nathan Oduwa, Stefan Colovic, Daniel Kelly, David McMillan
Arsenal: 3 Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, Cédric Soares, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolašinac, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock, Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Nicolas Pépé.
Arsenal subs: Bernd Leno, Karl Jakob Hein, Hector Bellerín, Kieran Tierney, Gabriel, Bukayo Saka, Dani Ceballos, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Folarin Balogun.