A wan smile could be glimpsed on Eddie Nketiah’s face when, with 28 minutes to go he swapped places with Folarin Balogun and headed to the bench. Nketiah probably sensed there were more goals for him in an entertaining-enough game, having opened the scoring with a textbook example of the attacking aggression Arsenal have missed. But perhaps he knew, too, that in the 19-year-old Balogun he has serious competition.
If a lack of goals is a major cause of their nosedive in the Premier League, there is plenty to suggest that need not be a problem in the long run.
Within minutes of his arrival Balogun held off his man and teed up a goal for Joe Willock. He continued to use the ball astutely and then, towards the end, he swept Arsenal’s fourth home confidently from 12 yards after a Nicolas Pépé pass. There is something about the way he carries himself that appeals to the instinct: Balogun just looks the part and, assuming Arsenal finally resolve his long-term future, it cannot be long before he is invited to transfer a natural assuredness to a more exalted stage.
“He was superb,” Mikel Arteta said of Balogun, who had scored his first senior goal against Molde a fortnight ago. “He looked a threat again. He looked really lively and mature on that pitch. Hopefully we can reach an agreement and extend his contract.”
Given Arsenal’s immediate concerns it would be unwise to extrapolate too much from a game between two sides whose fates had long been sealed. Arsenal have coasted through Group B; Dundalk leave pointless but with eight goals and plenty of goodwill. Inevitably the intensity dropped at times but Arteta could surely do worse than blend an element or two from his buccaneering Europa League side when Burnley visit on Sunday.
Nketiah’s goal made a point of its own in both manner and timing. He has not started a top-flight match for over two months and, while certain aspects of his game require development, his charging down of Andy Boyle’s clearance and subsequent chip past Gary Rogers offered a microcosm of his strengths. Last season Nketiah built a reputation for forcing errors and, given his penalty area instincts are beyond reproach, perhaps he offers the edge they require.
“He’s lively, he’s got the hunger, he’s only satisfied when he scored and he is an option for sure,” the manager added. Mohamed Elneny tends to pack less of a punch but he doubled Arsenal’s lead with a 28-yard screamer after good work from Emile Smith Rowe, who was starting for the first time this season and made his own case to push on.
Dundalk responded through Jordan Flores, whose raking drive beat Alex Rúnarsson before half-time. They had sniffs of an equaliser but had to settle for the final word, Sean Hoare heading in near the end. Between those goals Balogun had made his mark; now he will hope for another chance. “We need to start winning football matches immediately,” Arteta said. On recent evidence, his youth products would not be cowed by that challenge.