Nicolas Pepe tussles with Ezgjan Alioski. The Macedonian, very much in the Jack Wilshere mould of you love having him on your team but understand everyone else loathing him, succeeds in his task of rattling the Ivorian to the point of throwing his toys out of the pram. He moves his head towards him and gets sent off. Arsenal are down to ten men against Leeds.
Remarkably, Mikel Arteta’s side don’t lose. Leeds rattled the woodwork four times over the course of the match, force a few goalmouth scrambles and leave Elland Road bewildered as to how the match finished 0-0.
Arsenal, meanwhile, put their bodies on the line for the 40 minutes after being a man down, and were grateful to a few thick layers of paint for not falling to a fifth defeat in their first nine Premier League matches of the campaign.
It seemed for all the world as if Nicolas Pepe had dug his own grave that evening. Wildly inconsistent, the smatterings of hang-your-hat-on performances that offered remote glimpses of his talent were dismissed by his inexcusable exploits.
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Nicolas Pepe has point to prove against Leeds after his red card for Arsenal in the previous Premier League meeting
84 days later the opportunity presents itself to continue the most promising spell of his Arsenal career to date, as the very same opponents feature next on the fixture list.
Southampton in the Premier League mirrored the Saints in the FA Cup, with Nicolas Pepe cutting a rejuvenated figure in a starring performance. Manchester United on home soil, while lacking sharpness in the final third, maintained a decent level. Then, away at Wolves, he found his groove once more with an all-action outing that was as impressive as the team’s display in the first half, before the first red card.
The Aston Villa defeat? Well, he lacked the final ball, his crossing was wayward and some of his finishing left plenty to be desired. Yet, Arsenal in that second half played some superb football. Even if none of it came to fruition, they cut through Villa with regularity, attacked the right spaces and were it not for better execution in the final stage the outlook would have been entirely different.
Where Pepe slots into all of this is with the link-up down that left flank. Arteta wrongly opted to bring Willian on and move Pepe out onto the right, a move that stunted the rhythm of Arsenal’s play and contributed to a weaker finish to the match.
Despite being guilty of lacking the finishing touch, just like his teammates, Pepe was a constant danger on the left and was finally beginning to get the better of Matty Cash, who had kept him under wraps for large spells. Arsenal’s best chance of scoring was down Pepe’s side. Negatives, sure, but not the same ones used to critique him previously.
Primed for the exit door, he’s now in his best moment. ‘Best’ is, of course, in context to him.
While results won’t prove it, Arsenal are playing some of their most attractive and exciting attacking football of the season lately. The first half against Wolves was the best of the campaign, while the second half Villa had many pleasing aspects: Pepe played in both. Obviously not the sole reason for these performances, he’s nonetheless been influential.
Likely to be face-to-face with Alioski again (in a figurative sense since they’ll be on opposite flanks), eyes will be on him to show what demons he’s banished since that night in Yorkshire.
With the momentum he has from the Europa League and Premier League improvements since, heading into the clash with an added incentive of proving his point against Leeds and the confidence the manager has shown in him, it’s there for the taking.