It was impossible to tell who was the more relieved after Arsenal finally got a stoppage-time winner to defeat Vitoria in the Europa League. Was it Nicolas Pepe, whose brace of brilliant free-kicks suggested that he could finally justify his £72 million price-tag? Or was it his manager, Unai Emery, who must have been fearing another damaging defeat after Arsenal’s limp display at Bramall Lane? That is until Pepe entered the fray. The truth is that they were probably equally relieved, because it seems that both man’s fortunes in English football will be very closely linked.
Can Nicolas Pepe Push On From His Two-Goal Europa League Show?
The New Gervinho?
After Pepe had missed a sitter against Sheffield United, to go alongside his failure to score when put clean through at Anfield, there were some Arsenal fans who were alreadily unhappily proclaiming him “the new Gervinho”. That was partly because he shares the same country of birth (Ivory Coast) as the unfortunately coiffured winger. Gervinho had spent two seasons at Arsenal between 2011 and 2013 before his ignominious sale to Roma. But it was mainly because, like Gervinho, he seemingly lacked any kind of composure in front of goal. Against Vitoria, however, Pepe emphatically proved that he has far more going for him than Gervinho ever did, because nobody present could remember Gervinho scoring even one free-kick like that, let alone two.
Arsenal Needed Defenders, Not a Winger
The major gripe about Pepe is not so much about him personally as about what he represents, namely a club record fee; he cost £72 million, even if Arsenal ultimately pay it in six £12 million instalments. This is money that almost every Arsenal fan believes would have been better-spent on the team’s virtually non-existent defence rather than on yet another attacking player. This is especially true when the best part – indeed, perhaps the only functioning part – of the Arsenal side for the last season or so has been its attack.
For so long, Arsenal told their fans that they lacked the money to significantly strengthen the defence; yet, that defence has needed significant strengthening for at least a decade now. Even in the run-up to the ‘Bashing in Baku’ (aka the Europa League Final that Arsenal lost 4-1 to Chelsea), it was widely reported that if Arsenal did not qualify for the Champions League then the maximum transfer budget available would only be about £40 million. Consequently, when their team capitulated in Azerbaijan and failed to qualify for the Champions League, Arsenal fans duly feared the worst in the transfer market.
The Magic Money Tree
And yet, just like the UK Government when faced with the potential disaster of a no-deal exit from the EU, Arsenal (and in particular their owner, the widely reviled Stan Kroenke, suddenly found a magic money tree. To everyone’s astonishment, especially that of the Arsenal fans, the club spent £72 million on Pepe, albeit in instalments. So great was the shock among Arsenal fans at this extravagance that it took most of them a few days to think, “Hang on! Surely we should have spent that money on the defence instead?”
It is true that Arsenal did find even more money to buy some new defenders in the summer, notably Kiernan Tierney from Celtic. Nevertheless, the Gunners’ defensive ranks generally remain so weak that, especially in the absence of Tierney and the recuperating Hector Bellerin at full-back, the Arsenal backline has – incredibly – looked even weaker this season than it has for the previous 10 years.
£72 Million Could Have Bought A Top Centre-Back
Consequently, many Arsenal fans believed the money spent on Pepe would have gone further acquiring a top-class centre-back, rather than David Luiz. For example, £72 million would have been most of the money that Manchester United used to acquire Harry Maguire from Leicester (the eventual transfer fee was £85 million). And although Maguire may not be another Virgil Van Dijk (who, at £75 million, actually cost less than the Englishman), he is still a huge upgrade on either Luiz or Sokratis. The pair collectively form perhaps the worst permanent centre-back partnership that Arsenal have ever had, and certainly in the modern era (post-1971).
As a result, Pepe has become the target for most Arsenal fans’ opprobrium, when in reality it should really have been directed at Emery. Either he or whoever at the club (Raul Sanllehi?) decided to spend big on a winger rather than on reinforcing the defence. Fortunately for Pepe, his two goals against Vitoria should at least ease the pressure on him personally, especially as they were such good goals. Indeed, it is hard to think of another player – even the free-kick specialist himself, David Beckham – who scored two such stunning set-piece goals in the same match, the first to draw his team level and then, with virtually the last kick of the match, the second to win the game.
But Can He Do It Against Palace?
The task for Pepe now is to push on from his Europa League heroics to show that he can perform at that level more frequently, and especially in the Premier League. In addition, he must show that he can do so while Arsenal’s strikers and best players, Aubameyang and Lacazette, are on the same pitch. It was perhaps telling last night that neither was on the pitch when he was: Pepe came on for Lacazette, who is clearly still working his way back to match fitness after injury; and Emery rested Aubameyang for the game. Against Crystal Palace at the weekend, and for most of the big games in the future (in both the Premier League and the Europa League), they will surely be playing alongside him, and that could yet prove problematic.
There were two major charges laid against Pepe before his Europa League heroics; firstly, that he had cost money that could have better served bolstering Arsenal’s defence. Secondly, in the process, he had actually weakened Arsenal’s attack as well. Aubameyang and Lacazette had played so well together last season, scoring 50 goals between them, that there was arguably no real need to add a winger like Pepe to the attack, however fast he is (and Pepe is undoubtedly rapid, even if his footballing brain is not always as fast as his feet).
Can Pepe Make The Arsenal Attack A Great Front Three?
Against Palace, a far better side than Vitoria and one that will be happy to defend deep and then counter-attack, space will be at a premium and Pepe’s greatest asset, his pace, may largely be neutralised. If it is, then he will have to find other ways to have an impact on the game. Put simply, although he does not have to score two tremendous free-kicks in each game, he does have to find a way to dovetail with Aubameyang and Lacazette, proving that he can be added to a great front two to make it a great front three. If not, the pressure that he has been under since the start of the season will soon return. And if that happens, the pressure will inevitably begin to mount again on Unai Emery, too.
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