Nicolas Pepe can be infuriating in an Arsenal shirt.
There are moments in matches where you almost feel sorry for him, watching Nicolas Pepe try his hardest to shimmy beyond the full-back, ducking and diving around the ball in search of route out of trouble. For all the effort, nothing comes of and Arsenal supporters release a collective groan.
Bemusing decisions on the ball make you want to pull your hair out. Knowing what he’s going to do every time he collects possession down the right flank leaves you praying for a switch of play.
Infuriating is an adequate summary. So many aspects of his game are underwhelming.
Then he pops up and scores. Out of nowhere.
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Take Molde, for example. Those first 60 minutes were among his worst in an Arsenal shirt. Having faith in the process and truly believing he will come good, you’d have been forgiven for banishing any such notion on that day. I had.
Danny Welbeck-esque in coming across like Bambi on ice, when all seemed lost, he clawed his way back into the good books. The unquestionable ability he has returned to the fore. The discussion went back its roots: is Pepe actually good enough?
In so many ways, no. But in some ways, absolutely.
Across his entire game there are elements aplenty that need fine-tuning. From tactical discipline to consistency and everything in between, Pepe is so far from polished. Yet despite all his flaws, he must start for Arsenal. Willian out, Pepe in. In a nutshell.
Witness to the Ivorian’s double-edged days, his best day came on the final day of the 2019/20 season. Excellent against Chelsea at Wembley, the fanbase rose to their feet to applaud what was meant to be the watershed moment. Pepe had finally arrived. Next season would be a turning point.
Fulham comes around, and he’s dropped.
Whether you’re a world-class this, or an up and coming that, anyone’s confidence would be knocked. Eight matches into the season and he’s started just once. Losing only to Liverpool in the opening four matches, the decision could be deemed somewhat justified.
However, here we are now with Arsenal stagnant up front, lacking movement and spark. Willian has come under severe criticism and the goal posts move closer together each week. At this point in time, a goal from anywhere will do.
From what is available, the most likely source is Pepe – at least down the right.
We’ve repeatedly asked for more than flashes of his talent. The manager, too. But Arsenal may need to live with ‘flashes’ for now sandwiched between all the other frustrating aspects.
The old adage of winning when you’re not playing well can coexist with players too. Pepe may not play well for 70 minutes but set up a teammate or find the back of the net.
Beggars can’t be choosers, and all that.
Screamer against Dundalk? Out of nowhere. Scan across the rest of the team and there is no standout member of the cast who could pull of that skill.
X-factor is a term which has lost its meaning over the year, but it sufficiently encapsulates what Pepe has. The problem is, it’s packaged with helpings of Y and Z.
In order to eliminate the latter, he needs to get his confidence back. He won’t get that coming off the bench as a last resort. The FA Cup-final-Pepe was pegged back a few notches with the way the season has panned out, and it will only drift further afield unless he gets the nod in the Premier League.
34 starts for the club has yielded 23 goal contributions. Arsenal can’t score for toffee and Willian offers so little.
There will be vexation. There will be mistakes. There will also be more flair. More invention. More of a goal threat.
His knack of popping up with key moments in the midst of an otherwise unmemorable performance can’t be shunned for much longer. He’s not feeling the love of Arteta at the moment, but love is exactly what he needs. In the current predicament, the options are running out.