Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City has provided a feel-good atmosphere around the club, while also shining a light on Willian and Nicolas Pepe.
The pair have been heavily criticised by some fans this season, having been outshone by young players like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.
Victory against Leicester was a redemption moment for the pair, with Willian contributing two assists, doubling his tally for the season, and Pepe getting his name on the scoresheet.
While the criticism towards Willian has perhaps been understandable, following a largely disappointing first season since swapping Chelsea for Arsenal, the backlash towards Pepe has perhaps been misplaced.
There’s no denying that Arsenal expected more from their £72m club-record addition, who has struggled to find consistency since moving to the Premier League from Lille.
However, recent weeks have seen Pepe’s upturn in form well documented, with the goal against Leicester taking his tally to three goals in the past six league matches – having hit two in the Premier League prior to his effort against Southampton.
Crucially, he has been a starter in those matches and, throughout his career at Arsenal, he’s been far more effective when utilised from the off than he has been as a substitute – with 29 goals and assists in 44 starts for the Gunners.
Interestingly, his output under Arteta has been up there with Arsenal’s best, Bukayo Saka, who has deservedly attracted a plethora of praise following his remarkable rise in recent seasons.
Since the Spaniard took the reins, Saka has contributed eight goals and 13 assists in 54 appearances across all competitions for the Gunners. His importance has been well documented and his stock has risen significantly in the process.
For Pepe, however, 53 appearances have resulted in 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions – a better ratio of goals than Saka but a lower tally of assists. All in all though, it’s 21 direct goal contributions for Saka and 20 for Pepe.
Of course Pepe, six-years senior to Saka, will be expected to have impressive numbers and it does serve as further evidence of just how much of a gem Arsenal’s Hale End graduate truly is.
Equally though, it should also show that Pepe’s contribution for Arsenal is much, much better than the critics would suggest, while his recent improvements suggest that further impressive performances could be right around the corner.
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A problem, however, is the fact that both players have put in their best performances on the right-flank, with each less effective on the opposite side, raising questions as to how exactly the pair can play together and still be as effective.
This is where it may actually benefit Saka though, who has played a ridiculous amount of football for a teenager and Arteta has said that he needs to be protected. Without him though, Arsenal are considerably less effective in the final third.
If Pepe can carry more of that burden, it eases the pressure upon Saka who, at some point, is likely to encounter the struggles that every modern footballer has to overcome at some stage of their career.