Nicolas Pepe inspired Arsenal to reach the Europa League knockout stages with a 3-0 victory against Molde.
On Thursday night, Nicolas Pepe was raring, technically able and thrilling in the exact manner Arsenal have been hoping to see regularly since his £72m move 15 months ago.
In 1962, Arthur Alexander sang the words: ‘where have you been all my life’. A smooth soul classic. After that performance, you do wonder.
Off the back of his lowest moment in an Arsenal shirt – perhaps his career too – with the red card against Leeds, which Pepe took to the Aker Stadion pitch on Thursday was potentially defining.
If he’d have cut a non-partisan, forlorn figure on the Romsdal Peninsula, even the most staunch supporter of his would have began to coil in their defence. All with an Arsenal affiliation want him to succeed, nobody harbours a sadistic disposition in yearning for him to fail for the sake of their narrative. Nevertheless, the stage was set for a telling 90 minutes.
Understandably, the Arsenal faithful are overjoyed at the performance of the Ivorian: sharp in all fields and sagacious with his movement. A willing striker of the ball, his six efforts were more than any other player on the night – one notably smacking the underside of the crossbar from 25 yards.
Collecting the ball deeper than usual, the 4-2-3-1 setup grants that. At Lille it was where he was most dangerous, and flashes of that form came to the fore on Thursday. With Reiss Nelson on the other flank, there was better balance in Arsenal’s wide play. The result of fielding two natural wingers, but also the tactical understanding of the pair.
Pepe, exhibiting his talent, and fully deserving of the resulting praise. Should we be taken aback by that? No, because we’ve seen it all before.
What we haven’t seen is the shift in attitude.
As soon as the whistle went, he was at it. Harassing and calling for the ball, look up ‘point to prove’ and Pepe’s face would show up.
Bypassing the quality we’re already enlightened to, in order to reach the stardom you’ve been tipped to achieve, progress must be shown without your feet. Pepe had that on Thursday, it was etched across his face in the form of a beady, not bashful, grin.
Two matches await Pepe to demonstrate consistency. Then, back to the league to maintain it.