Arseblog column: Talented Nicolas Pepe needs time to shine at Arsenal – like Bergkamp, Henry and Pires before him
It would be fair to say that some of the things Unai Emery has said in recent days have frustrated Arsenal fans. His insistence that he has made the team more competitive just days after a 1-0 defeat to newly-promoted Sheffield United, for example, is at odds with what his side have produced on the pitch. His defiant response to criticism suggests he's a man who is beginning to feel the pressure.
However, when he spoke about Nicolas Pepe ahead of the Gunners' Europa League clash with Vitoria, it was hard to argue with what he said. Quite reasonably, Emery made the point that players can often need time to come to terms with a new club, a new league, a new language and all that a transfer like this entails.
Citing the time it took Liverpool midfielder Fabinho to settle into the Premier League, Emery said: "The first six months he didn't play, it was adaptation, but now he is amazing and I want the same with [Dani] Ceballos, with Pepe.
"We need patience, but Pepe is improving. It's a process and I believe in him, and I know we need time and patience."
Unfortunately, we live in a world where patience is often in short supply. Even if common sense tells you that nine Premier League games is no kind of sample size to assess a new player properly, football culture almost demands it these days. The conversation about a player's performance is no longer restricted to the walk from the game, or a few beers afterwards – it resonates online until such time as he plays again.
For Pepe, as he took to the field against Vitoria in the Europa League on Thursday night, many will have still been focusing on the miss against Sheffield United which would have changed the complexion of that game. He should have scored from a Sead Kolasinac cross, but miskicked and skewed the ball wide. That was in the 21st minute – nine minutes later the home side were ahead as Arsenal's defence switched off (is it ever really on?) and Lys Mousset tucked home what turned out to be the winner.
Naturally, that would have been most people's takeaway from the game when they think about the Ivorian. But that aside, there were encouraging signs from him on what was a dismal night for Arsenal. We saw him showcase his dribbling skills, and it was those which began the move for that great chance. Pepe beat men deep in his own half, released the ball and then ran the length of the pitch to get into a goalscoring position.
He looked the most dangerous player on the night too, which is why his substitution for Gabriel Martinelli was a bit of a surprise. With Arsenal in need of a goal to salvage something from the game, it seemed odd that Emery didn't allow Pepe more time to play with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette: the attacking trident that Arsenal fans long to see deployed on a regular basis now that the Frenchman is fit again.
It's also worth bearing in mind that it's difficult for any player to shine individually when the team is performing poorly. Aside from some exciting nights in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, Arsenal's performances this season have been functional at best, downright chaotic at worst.
The only one to really show his quality has been Aubameyang, but we're talking about a vastly experienced, top-class striker right at the top of his game. In truth, he's carried the team to an extent, but beyond that it's hard to point to anyone else who has produced their best football on a consistent basis.
So as Pepe, sent on for Lacazette against Vitoria, curled in his second goal of the night in the 92nd minute – the first Arsenal player in living memory to score two free-kicks in a single game – the relief was palpable. Emery barely celebrated, perhaps conscious of the context in which the winger had rescued his side, while the player himself was so smothered with team-mates that he could barely lift his head to raise a smile.
NICOLAS PEPE HAS DONE IT AGAIN!
He rips a free-kick into the top corner in added time to snatch all three points!
Sensational strike! pic.twitter.com/HLZ6NVZjaU
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 24, 2019
He had rescued Arsenal from what would have been an embarrassing result, and while the Europa League is a lower priority for the Gunners than the Premier League, defeat to a side like Vitoria would have raised the blood pressure of an already frustrated fanbase.
Since his arrival, there have been constant reminders that some of Arsenal's best players from days of yore all took time to settle. Dennis Bergkamp needed seven games before his first goals; Thierry Henry didn't get off the mark until his ninth appearance; while Robert Pires's first season wasn't as indifferent as many suggest, but it was after Christmas when he really found his feet.
Clearly Pepe has a long way to go before matching the performances and achievements of such luminaries, but with three goals and an assist to his name now, and with his confidence clearly on the rise, you wouldn't bet against him making a much bigger impact in the weeks and months ahead.
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