He’s worth the money Arsenal paid if he plays like that every week.
Against Rapid Vienna – yes, okay, it’s Rapid Vienna – Nicolas Pepe put in an absolute shift. Playing off the left-wing, he drifted across the front line, creating chances for Arsenal (quite literally) left, right, and center.
His left-footed reliance didn’t seem to trouble him as much, as he bamboozled the Austrian team’s backline by, shock horror, cutting to the byline AND taking right-footed shots. He’s a changed man.
But more than that, I saw three things from Pepe often in an Arsenal shirt. For one, he was energetic. With the exception of a few moments, he didn’t rest on the ball, or dwell in poor positions. He was explosive going forward, committed to his defensive duties – he ran back and made tackles for goodness’ sake – and he never stopped making space, for himself and others.
His movement off-the ball was especially impressive. He had one perfectly timed run in behind, where he squared it to Eddie Nketiah, but he was rarely caught offside. Instead, he maneuvered deftly around his teammates, stretching the pitch to its fullest extent, and allowing Ainsley Maitland-Niles to thrive in the center.
For another, he was unselfish. Most of his dribbles and take-ons ended with somebody else on the end of the link-up play. Instead of bogging down proceedings with clumsy individual efforts, he was nearly seamless in his one-two’s and dummy runs. Better yet, he was a focal point of the offense throughout the match. It was clear his teammates trusted him.
Finally, he was angry. Not the frustrated Pepe that we’ve seen in recent weeks, hanging his head and dragging his feet. Not the arrogant Pepe, who got steamed during the Leeds match, and committed himself to a few weeks in the stands. No, he was playing like somebody had lit a fire under his ass, and he had a point to prove.
He played with purpose, intent, and intensity most of all. He was held, kicked, and pushed by the Rapid defenders, and whinged to the referee a bit, but his head never dropped. Instead, he took his play up a notch, taking the fight to his opponents. That’s not something we’ve seen much from him, at all.
He’s not a perfect player, and he has his flaws. But even despite tallying neither a goal nor an assist, if he can play like this every match, the lifeline he threw himself against Rapid Vienna could pull him back into a starting spot for Arsenal, and potentially signal a change of fortunes for our mercurial Ivorian.