Why Nicolas Pepe's Recent Arsenal Omissions HAVE Been Justified
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
After missing out on consecutive starts against Leeds and Benfica respectively, Nicolas Pepe was restored to Arsenal's starting XI against Man City on Sunday. Many an Arsenal fan has felt that the Ivorian didn't deserve to lose his spot in the first place after stringing together a number of impressive performances against the likes of Southampton, Wolves and Aston Villa.
However, the Southampton game I refer to above was of course the league match after a weary FA Cup defeat. During the Cup match which came before the 3-1 league victory over the Saints, a Nicolas Pepe that Arsenal fans have become accustomed to watching since his record transfer from Lille was on show. He lacked incision, he was wasteful and his performance lacked intensity.
Of course, there were mitigating factors that day. Pepe was operating in quite a poor Arsenal XI and it was his first start in two weeks. Nonetheless, his much-talked about price tag means Gooners justifiably expect him to overcome such issues. And recently, in fairness, Pepe has responded very well.
Not only have his performances born fruit through a couple of goals, but his effort levels have also gone through the roof. Against Manchester City on Sunday, Pepe's relentless running off the ball was especially noticeable. Of course, critics will respond to this by saying such work-rate should be the bare minimum we expect from an Arsenal player. And they'd be right to suggest that. But it's a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, what preceded Pepe's recent run of good form justifies his recent omission. If you're Mikel Arteta, deliberating over who should start at left-wing in an important match, who are you going to choose: Emile Smith Rowe who has barely played a single bad game for Arsenal, or Nicolas Pepe who has failed to deliver countless times? Even the staunchest defenders of Pepe will know the decision would be simple for Arteta.
It must be recognised that a lot can be said about good form in football. Anyone who has stepped on a football pitch can tell you it tends to be easier to play well when you are confident. From such a perspective, it's easy to understand why so many have been angered by Pepe's exclusions. Nevertheless, what about Smith Rowe? What about Ødegaard? What about Saka? All three performed strongly against Leeds.
It was Pepe's omission from the starting lineup for the Benfica game last Thursday which appeared to anger Arsenal fans most but could Arteta have really dropped any one of the attacking trio which started behind Auba against Leeds? Based on the 'good form' argument, no.
From a tactical perspective, there are further reasons why Arteta has preferred to start Emile Smith Rowe on the left over Pepe lately. Without Thomas Partey in midfield, Arsenal lack a ball carrier or line breaker in the middle of the park, perhaps making another technician further forward more of a necessity in order to create. Smith Rowe doubtlessly offers more technically than Pepe does, so it's not as if he's starting over his colleague groundlessly.
Overall, it appears segments of Arsenal's social media community have overreacted once again. Yes, Pepe's recent omissions have been contentious, but they aren't representative of poor management from Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard has clearly been trying to do what's best for his team, unfortunately for Pepe, that's meant a lack of game time for him.