Pepe has clicked
There is a narrative around Nicolas Pepe that he’s still yet to deliver on his potential for Arsenal. At what point does that start to become a myth of the past?
Since January 26th the Ivorian has nine goal involvements in 17 starts and is establishing himself as someone who can genuinely change games on a regular basis.
Time and again in 2021 Pepe has stood out with strong performances and key goals for the Gunners and on Wednesday night it was exactly the same.
Pepe is a player often accused of having just one foot, but his right footed volley for his first goal put paid to that assertion. Then where to begin with his second!
The touch to bring down Gary Cahill ‘s header was sublime in itself but to follow it up with the close control to dribble past not one, not two, but three Palace defenders before slotting home a composed curling finish past Vicente Guaita was fantastic.
Games against Crystal Palace are always something of a yardstick for the Ivorian as he comes up against his compatriot Wilfried Zaha who Unai Emery has famously admitted that he wanted to sign instead in the summer of 2019.
On Wednesday night though, for the first time in the battle of the two wingers, it was Pepe who came out on top, having the far bigger impact on the match.
Speaking after the game Mikel Arteta believed the consistency the 25-year-old is starting to show is what can help him become one of the league’s best.
“Well, I am very encouraged and positive to think that way for two reasons,” said the Spaniard when asked if the club-record signing could keep this form up.
“One because he’s come a long way in terms of consistency and what he’s producing in games, not just in the Premier League but what he’s done in Europe this season.
“And the second one because it’s in his mindset. He wants to look at every action, he wants to look at every post-match reflection that we do with him, he wants to work and he wants to be the best.
“When that happens and he has the talent that he has I think it’s a really good mixture.”
The narrative around Pepe continues to be that he is a player who frustrates by showing his clear class only too infrequently in disparate moments.
Perhaps it’s getting carried away to say this after goals against a relegation-bound West Brom side and an already safe Palace, but it seems the Ivorian is no longer a player classified as one who could deliver on his potential in the future. Instead he’s doing it right now.
Arsenal’s youngsters give Arteta a selection headache
As Arsenal looked to be heading towards a disappointing draw at Selhurst Park Mikel Arteta had two attacking options to bring off the bench.
One was the experienced centre forward Alexandre Lacazette who is the Gunners top scorer this season and has impressed for the most part, and the other was 19-year-old Gabriel Martinelli who despite flashes of brilliance has yet to have consistently shine at senior level (partly because he hasn’t been given the chance to).
The man Arteta opted for was the younger talent, and as the Brazilian steamed in at the back post to drive a late goal over the line to put Arsenal in front, it was safe to say the gamble paid off.
Martinelli’s goal allowed the Gunners to keep up an impressive record of having never lost a Premier League game in which a teenager has scored for them. In 60 matches where those under 20 have netted the club have won 50 and drawn 10.
It’s perhaps this indicator that is a sign for Arteta as he plans his squad for next season.
Bukayo Saka had one of his quieter nights but his backheel to Kieran Tierney in the build up to Pepe’s opener was a moment of sheer quality, while Emile Smith Rowe had another decent game, dropping into pockets of space in front of the Palace defence that did real damage in the first half in particular.
Those two and Martinelli surely have to be starting on a regular basis now.
But having already established that Pepe needs to be playing based on form, the question for Arteta is how does he get the Ivorian, Martinelli, Saka and Smith Rowe all in the same team at the same time?
After the game the Arsenal manager did appear to indicate that playing all of his young players every game was not a risk he was quite willing to take just yet, but implied that they would not be short of opportunities next season.
“We need to understand where the boys are and the phase of their development, what they have done this season and last season,” said the Spaniard.
“I know that we want to play with 11 academy players and all under 20, but guys, who is doing that? I think we’ve done it more than anybody.
“They’re going to have their chances and they’re earning their chances, we’re not just giving the chances they’re earning them, absolutely earning their chances and it’s a joy to have them in this club.”
As far as problems go, finding a way to get a high number of in form attacking players into a side is one of the better ones Arteta will have to deal with, but it will be fascinating to see how he deals with it going forward.
Aubameyang struggles again
One thing that might make Arteta’s attacking dilemma easier is the continued poor form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
There have been many theories put forward to explain the dramatic drop off in the Gabon international’s goal scoring output this season.
Of course his battle with malaria has played a key part in recent weeks, but before that disciplinary issues, a loss of confidence and family troubles were all important factors.
One thing that has never really stood up to any sort of scrutiny though is the idea that there is a problem when it comes to his desire to score goals.
Lazy parallels have been drawn between him and Mesut Ozil due to the fact that Aubameyang’s drop off in performance has coincided with his signing of a contract extension much like the German’s did.
Instead though the 31-year-old’s biggest problem is that he has been a victim of Arsenal’s endemic inability to fashion enough chances for their forwards.
As per InfoGol his xG is actually slightly lower (9.72) than his goals tally (10) in the Premier League this season, suggesting that when the good chances do come along the Gabonese forward is putting them away.
But watching him toil away up front both at Selhurst Park and in last week’s victory it Chelsea it is clear that Aubameyang is starting to get frustrated with the lack of opportunities coming his way.
Last week at Stamford Bridge when he was replaced by Alexandre Lacazette for the final few minutes, despite the positive result for the team, he slumped into his seat ashen faced and looking thoroughly annoyed with the way his evening had gone.
On Wednesday it was a similar story. Despite often making the right movements in the box he was hardly ever found by his teammates, leading his frustration to build and build.
This came to a head midway through the second half when despite making a good a run Aubameyang was ignored by Kieran Tierney who had had the option to play him in. The Gabonese forward’s visible annoyance was picked up on by Martin Keown in commentary who sympathised with the striker suggesting that ball should have been moved forward quicker.
Clearly worn down by the consistently low number of chances he is afforded in a game, eventually the former Borussia Dortmund man started to stop making the runs he specialises in.
Towards the end of the match with the scores still at 1-1 Mohamed Elneny whipped a low dangerous ball across the face of the goal that an in-form Aubameyang would have sprinted across the near post to get on the end of. Instead though the 31-year-old was caught on his heels and the cross came to nothing.
It is here where the Arsenal captain cannot afford to let his frustrations get the better of him.
The only way he is going to get out of this poor run of scoring is by continuing to make those runs and hoping the balls do eventually come to him.
In fairness to Aubameyang his ability to compartmentalise bad moments and put them behind him is what has made him one of the most consistent strikers in Europe across the last 10 years. He needs to rely on that again now to bounce back and be ready for next season.
European football is still on, but not as Arsenal would have hoped
For a brief period after the full time whistle it looked like, out of nowhere, Arsenal’s wafer thin chance of qualifying for the Europa League had gotten a whole lot bigger.
Tottenham had lost to Aston Villa, while West Ham were a goal down at the Hawthorns and after salvaging a late victory the Gunners were only one point off the top six.
Spurs travell to Champions League chasing Leicester on the final day, and Everton – who sit one place above Arsenal in the table – face a daunting visit to Manchester City. The Gunners meanwhile have a comparatively easier home fixture against Brighton.
Sixth place was suddenly very much back on.
Sadly though it didn’t stay that way for long.
In times gone by that might not have been viewed as such a bad thing, but this season ending in that position qualifies you for the Europa Conference League – Europe’s third tier competition.
Without being too disrespectful, for a club with the size, ambition and history of the Gunners the ECL (as no one is calling it) is not a tournament they want to be in.
Top prize from it is qualifying for the Europa League the following season, but as Mikel Arteta has consistently stated, Arsenal’s desire is to be back in the Champions League instead.
With neither Spurs nor Everton favourites to win their final games there is a distinct possibility though that the Europa Conference League is where they could end up next season.
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If you’re looking for positives it could be spun as a good way to bring through some the club’s exciting young players as the Europa League group stages have been over the past few seasons. But that is clutching at straws.
Honestly at this point, time on the training ground would probably be far more useful to Arteta than a competition which he has no real incentive for winning.
The final day promises to be a weird race for seventh that none of the three clubs involved actually want to win, perhaps befitting of a season that Arsenal will want to forget.