Arsenal trudged their way past Newcastle to reach the FA Cup fourth round.
For 100 or so minutes it wasn’t pretty. A game that was always going to be decided on a mistake, it was Ciaran Clark whose error ended up with Emile Smith Rowe brilliantly converting his chance into the bottom corner to open the scoring for Arsenal.
Plenty of huffing and puffing took place before that. Unfortunately, it was predominantly huffing followed by four touches before the eventual puff. The lethargic Arsenal seen pre-Christmas had returned, with those coming in to replace the starring members of this squad leaving no lasting impressions.
There was Nicolas Pepe, however, who was at his usual 70% of a full performance level. There is always something (usually plural) missing with the Ivorian, coincidentally on this occasion, it was end product.
Decent starts from both he and Reiss Nelson on the opposite flank died down after 15 minutes, but it didn’t stop Pepe from offering Arsenal an occasional spark in an otherwise blunt attacking display.
No involvement at all in the last two Premier League outings meant he had an opportunity to seize against Newcastle. While his finger slipped on the trigger at crucial moments to evoke the usual sense of frustration, all the other aspects of his game were much improved.
Defensively he put in a solid shift. Cedric was majorly rubbish on Saturday and needed Pepe to cover him in regular intervals, much of which stunted his attacking output. When he was further up the pitch, there was more one-touch play with whoever was in the inside space, which on two occasions ended with him getting into a position to bend in in-swinging cross into the box.
He could easily have recorded an assist against the Magpies. By no fault of his own, he should have.
Everything building up to the goal was better than we’ve seen this season from Pepe. It was more reminiscent of his Europa League displays, just without the finishing touch. Annoyingly, mirroring what is usually served up.
What he has to do now is mash together separate performances into one collective output. And then, just maybe, a corner could be turned.