Leeds 0-0 Arsenal: Where does Nicolas Pepe go from here?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Nicolas Pepe's fragmented and disjointed Arsenal career may have experienced a significant hall mark yesterday. In the 51st minute at Elland Road, the Ivorian foolishly decided to plough his head into the head of Ezgjan Alioski, following a tussle a few minutes earlier between the two. The Leeds man may have theatrically thrown himself to the floor, but this sort of act will always result in a red card, and Pepe knew this. Anthony Taylor correctly gave him his marching orders, and Arsenal were left to play the final 40 minutes of this tricky encounter with 10 men. Whatever happens in the remaining duration of Pepe's time in North London, this will feel like a pivotal moment. It will either spark a fire in him and alight the obvious talent he possesses, or it'll be the beginning of the end as Arteta's already limited faith in the winger continues to curtail.
Calls for Pepe to get a consistent run of games in the team have been expressed by several sections of the fanbase for a long time now. The perception has been that, if he plays regularly, he'll start firing on all cylinders. Whilst this may be a rather simplistic viewpoint of how to maximise his effectiveness, there's certainly a case to be made that if he does get a larger amount of minutes, then the non-tangible elements to his game, such as confidence, may improve and we may see some more consistency in his erratic form. Pepe himself expressed his desire to play more minutes over the international break, stating that "it is frustrating for any player to be on the bench".
When you're publicly expressing your disappointment at a lack of game time, when you do actually receive some minutes from the start, you don't throw it away in such an idiotic act of foolishness. It's clear that Arteta's faith in Pepe is already limited- evident in yesterday being just his second Premier League start this season- but it'd be safe to suggest this faith is now somewhat broken. The Spaniard matched Pepe's public antics by telling Sky last night that Pepe had let the team down, and that his actions were "unacceptable". The faith is almost certainly waning, and waning even more.
Unfortunately, Arsenal can't afford to cut their losses on the Ivorian and throw in the towel. It was too large a financial outlay to simply give up on the potential it has to work at this early stage. Yes, Pepe has had 15 months to adapt to the Premier League, and we've still only seen his talent in glimpses, but when you spend £72 million on a player yet can't afford to pay a mascot's wages, everything must be done to try and make this deal work.
What Arteta decides to do from here will ultimately decide how Pepe's Arsenal career fairs. The manager may decide to leave him out for a while and ostracise him to an extent, before bringing him back and hoping that riles him up in a positive manner. On the other hand, he may opt to publicly reinstall faith in him (even if he doesn't fully believe in him privately), in a hope that this support reinstalls confidence in him. The former option seems more likely, and given previous similar scenarios within the club, it could go either way. Matteo Guendouzi was ostracised twice, one of which provoked a positive response, the other very much did not. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dani Ceballos reacted positively to blatant freezing out, whilst Mesut Ozil has not recovered (albeit his situation is slightly different). Pepe's mindset and mental strength will essentially determine whether or not this transfer can be considered a success to any level whatsoever.
For this game in particular, Pepe was introduced by Arteta to add a level of unpredictability to a side that has been lacklusture offensively for some time. As shown in the Europa League of late, despite being very erratic in possession and often being very wasteful, he is indeed capable of producing stellar moments out of very little- and relatively frequently. The first half demonstrated this quite perfectly, as the Ivorian produced arguably the two more standout first 45 moments for our side.
Once Pepe was dismissed, Arsenal sat in their low compact shape and looked to hit Marcelo Bielsa's men on the counter. They almost did this, with Bukayo Saka spurning a golden opportunity after being put through superbly by Hector Bellerin. Having said this, it was the offensive side of Arsenal's game that again flattered to deceive, with this the only 'big chance' we mustered up in the entire 90 minutes.
Whilst Leeds came close on a number of occasions, hitting the woodwork 3 times and forcing Bernd Leno into three good stops, Arsenal did well on the whole to limit many of Leeds' 24 efforts to speculative ones. This, along with Aubameyang switching to a central role where he managed three shots, the only real positives that can be taken from what was another miserable afternoon for the club that will only be labelled with the more abrupt negatives.