Is This the Turning Point for Nicolas Pepe’s Arsenal Career?
Five months ago Nicolas Pepe walked off the pitch at Elland Road, his Arsenal future looking bleak following a VAR review which adjudged him guilty of violent conduct and saw him receive a red card. He had let his team and manager down at a crucial part of an important game. Some saw this as a point of no return. However, Pepe is now enjoying the best form of his Arsenal career with the future never looking brighter. The story of redemption is one of hard work and support.
Just the very next morning Pepe took to Instagram to admit full responsibility and apologise to the team, the coach and the fans. This was an action that marked a change. The winger was brought back into the starting lineup for the very next game against Molde in the Europa League. His performance was that of a man with a point to prove. Eager to drive at defenders constantly, chipping in with defensive actions and eventually getting his goal in a 0-3 win.
Although Pepe had redeemed himself in the eyes of the fans, he still faced a fight to win back his place in the League team. More good performances in the Europa League followed, a goal in the League against Everton until the big moment came. Southampton away, a cold January night. Following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s withdrawal from the squad due to personal reasons, Pepe was deployed on the left. It was a night he shone. Arsenal had fallen behind to a Stuart Armstrong goal before Pepe levelled the scores, finishing on his favoured left foot. He strolled to the cameras, finger to lips as the doubters fell silent. Arsenal would go on to win the game 1-3, Pepe and the young Bukayo Saka starring on each wing.
Subsequent games against Wolves, Manchester United, Leicester City, Tottenham and West Ham would result in more impressive performances and goal contributions from Pepe. The latest of which is a brilliantly executed cross leaving an open goal for Alex Lacazette to level the scores against West Ham and complete a comeback from 3-0 down.
Despite Pepe’s consistency, he has failed to start many League games recently. This is through no fault of his own. Pepe’s run of League starts near the start of the year had also coincided with Kieran Tierney’s injury. While Cedric was filling in at left-back for the injured Scotsman, he was not performing the same role. While Tierney constantly overlaps and crosses on his left, Cedric, being a right-footed right-back by trade could not perform the same function. This in term gave Pepe freedom to occupy the spaces Kieran Tierney often does.
Since Kieran Tierney has come back into top form for Arsenal, Mikel Arteta favours a more creative winger on the left, (Emile Smith Rowe) or a Striker such as Aubameyang who will often come inside, allowing Tierney the space to overlap.
If Pepe can’t play on the left with Tierney, why not play him on the right? That brings me on to the second factor affecting Pepe’s game time. Bukayo Saka. While previously being deployed as a left-back or left-winger, Saka recently has found his own on the right-wing and has performed excellently there. He has put up a consistent string of top-class performances in that position since January and looks to be a long term option there.
Right now Pepe is doing the exact right thing. He is placing pressure on Mikel Arteta by performing every time he steps on the pitch. He often leads the team in tackles, is regularly clocking goals/assists and is showing everyone he deserves to be starting for Arsenal. Whether it be rotation, competition for Saka or starting in a different position completely, the Ivorian is making his voice heard. The future is bright for Arsenal’s club-record signing.