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Mikel Arteta’s strong words for Nicolas Pepe following Arsenal’s 0-0 draw at Leeds United on Sunday night reflected the mood of a manager who felt personally let down by a player.
It was Pepe’s second league start this season and his sending off at Elland Road means it would be some time before Arteta even considers naming him in his starting eleven again in the Premier League. For once the Arsenal manager showed faith in the winger but it backfired badly and it almost cost him the game at Leeds.
The Ivorian has not done enough to earn the Arsenal manager’s trust and Arteta truly believed in the player he would have been picking him more often in the Premier League.
The fact that he only made his second league start at Elland Road on Sunday shows that the Spaniard is far from convinced about the club’s record signing.
Nicolas Pepe moaned during the international break about his lack of opportunities and told French broadcaster Canal+:
“My goal is to play more. Have a little more playing time… it is frustrating for any player to be on the bench.”
But when the opportunity came against Leeds, Pepe’s needless reaction to head-butt Gianni Alioski reflected the reasons he is not getting many chances. Mikel Arteta can’t trust the man.
Mikel Arteta rolled the dice with Nicolas Pepe on Sunday
Arsenal have been looking devoid of ideas up front this season. They have not scored a goal from open play in the Premier League for more than seven hours. Only Wolves have scored a lesser number of goals than Arsenal in the Premier League’s top 16 teams at the moment.
Given Arsenal’s attacking issues, Mikel Arteta took a chance with Nicolas Pepe against Leeds United and the Ivorian created the most dangerous moments for the team in the first half.
He flashed one shot just wide off the post and his stray cross hit the woodwork as well. In a team struggling to create chances, Pepe’s mercurial ability provides an unpredictability that could have manifested in a better attacking performance and Arteta gambled on him.
But that gambled backfired big time when Pepe needlessly reacted to Alioski’s constantly needling and head-butted the Leeds defender. From there on, it was not a surprise that the winger was sent off.
There are a lot of grey areas in football when it comes to the use of VAR but no one was shocked when Pepe received the red card. No one from the Arsenal team protested and the people in the dugout were not surprised as well.
Kieran Tierney had a go at Alioski at the end of the game and while the Leeds player made a meal of the soft head-butt, Pepe’s red card was not subject to any interpretation.
Nicolas Pepe will now miss the next three league games against Wolves, Tottenham and Burnley and I don’t think many at Arsenal would miss him. But Arsenal also cannot afford to give up on him just yet.
The sense of disappointment was clear from Mikel Arteta’s words at the end of the game on Sunday but the Arsenal manager is aware he cannot jettison the winger out of the club.
Pepe, given the amount of money Arsenal, have invested on him, must be given every opportunity to make it work at the Emirates.
However, there is a real sense that Pepe hit the crossroads in his Arsenal career at Elland Road on Sunday. It could go two ways – either he returns a more determined individual or he continues to fade until he leaves the club.
But given Arsenal’s impotency up front this season, Pepe is likely to get more opportunities. The Gunners desperately need a player of his quality as they continue to struggle to create and score goals.
However, following the Leeds game it is safe to stay Arteta is unsure than ever that Pepe is the player who would unlock their attacking potential in the near future.
For the moment, Pepe feels more like a £72m albatross around Arteta’s neck than a player who would go onto justify his price tag at the Emirates.