Is a potential Champions League charge now on the cards? While such talk may be a little premature, there is certainly growing cause for optimism at Arsenal as they bounced back from an FA Cup defeat in style to secure an impressive 3-1 victory against Southampton, recording a third away win in a row and maintaining their unbeaten league run in 2021. Nicolas Pepe wasn’t bad either.
After suffering the wrath of the fans for selecting a rotated side at the weekend, Mikel Arteta chose a stronger lineup for Tuesday’s fixture, making five changes which saw players such as Thomas Partey and Bukayo Saka reclaim their starting positions.
Although their restoration to the team unquestionably added to the intensity of our play on the south coast, one of the most heartening performances was delivered by a survivor of Saturday’s loss: the much-maligned Nicolas Pepe.
It is fair to say that Pepe has failed to win over the Arsenal fans following his club-record 72m move from Lille, and he has even struggled to convince Arteta about what he brings to the fold, completing 90 minutes in the Premier League on just six occasions since the Spaniard’s appointment in December 2019.
Nicolas Pepe performance offers encouragement for his Arsenal future
Despite his struggles for regular game time, the Ivorian was handed a starting berth in midweek, with the boss implementing a small tactical tweak by fielding him on the left wing in an attempt to unlock his considerable talent.
Hopes for a Pepe revival were dampened early on as he criminally switched off at a set-piece, allowing Stuart Armstrong to expertly steer home a well-executed Saints’ corner routine after just three minutes. However, the former Lille man recovered in the best possible way as he levelled the scores soon after and continued to cause a number of problems for the home defence thanks to his committed pressing, totaling seven ball recoveries – the joint highest in the team.
Despite his many positive contributions on the night, we still saw signs of the Pepe we all know and love during the game. With his influence waning slightly just before the break, he also struggled to hold the ball up in advanced positions, and Southampton frequently capitalised on the spaces left in wide areas as we pushed for more.
But to his credit, he sparked back into life as the game progressed and demonstrated his undoubted quality with a delightful dribble through the opposition at the end.
While we must not get carried away by either Arsenal’s recent run of form or Pepe’s impact over the last week, perhaps we can take encouragement from Arteta’s persistence in trying to get the best out of his attacking options, especially at a time when the talismanic Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is unavailable for selection. Additionally, the arrival of Martin Odegaard may help our record signing to sustain his current form over the coming weeks.
The dismay expressed in many quarters regarding Pepe’s underwhelming impact at the club thus far has been largely warranted, but with our No. 19 not yet being afforded an extended run in the team this season, perhaps increased game time will allow him to settle and showcase his ability.
With the confidence boost provided by his displays in both games against Southampton recently, and considering how Willian is the only threat to his position at the moment, what do we have to lose?