Mikel Arteta has a decision on his hands with Nicolas Pepe at Arsenal.
The forward’s petulance saw him brandished a straight red card after VAR review, a thoroughly deserved punishment for his headbutt on Ezgjan Alioski in Arsenal’s 0-0 draw with Leeds.
While no further detail was offered about what happened in the changing room following the game, The Times have since revealed:
"“Arteta took Pepe to task in the dressing room for the incident.”"
In other words, he gave him a right good rollicking. Rightly so. Further private discussions will be taking place between the pair to discuss the disciplinary issue, as is Arteta’s methods. It was the same treatment for Matteo Guendouzi.
However, this is different.
It’s impossible to get into Arteta’s head, and while it perhaps wouldn’t come as a shock to see Pepe play no part in Thursday’s Europa League tie with Molde, it’d be the wrong turn to take.
In the case of Guendouzi, it’s been widely publicised that his attitude and general demeanour in training is poor. Former managers of his have said it, and the situation hadn’t dissipated at Arsenal. Pepe, while having done something utterly ridiculous at Leeds, as far as we know, is not cut from the same cloth.
There have been no murmurings of an unruly approach or below-par training standards. As far as we know, the concerns over Pepe relate only to his on-field performances. His actions at Elland Road were a one-off moment of idiocy – the first red card of the year. For that reason, being banned from the next three Premier League fixtures is ample punishment.
Arteta’s non-negotiables include commitment. If Pepe is showing enough, then there is absolutely no reason he shouldn’t feature on Thursday.
Furthermore, Pepe needs to play football. Arsenal need Pepe to play football. Exempt him from the Europa League team and you’re forcing even more minutes on players who desperately need a rest. Willian suffered a muscle injury, Reiss Nelson will now play regularly in the top-flight and Bukayo Saka sustained a knock of his own.
With the squad thin as it is, dropping Pepe from European fixtures would be Arteta cutting off his nose to spite his face. This team has to be fit and firing heading into a grueling period of the year. Pepe has to be fit and firing heading into a grueling period of the year.
Flashes, however brief, of Pepe playing with confidence at Elland Road were quickly forgotten about with his second half antics. His touches were neater, movement more aggressive. What he needs now is to see that side of the match and build on it.
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘experience is simply the name we give our mistakes’.
Bizarrely, this could even be blessing in disguise, regardless of how long we’ve waited for watershed. As one of few players within this squad capable of creating a chance – or even scoring – that might not be quite as clear given he’s missing crucial fixtures, but, as we wait for someone to flick the switch of consistency in Pepe, suffering the hard way may be his cue for self-efficacy.
The Ivorian can’t be doing that sat on his sofa.