The Gunners’ club record signing will return from suspension on Wednesday when the north London outfit side host Southampton in the Premier League
It has been just under a month since Nicolas Pepe got himself sent off for Arsenal during their 0-0 draw at Leeds United.
Since then, the club’s record signing has had to sit at home and watch his team-mates lose three successive games in the Premier League, scoring just one goal in the process.
Pepe, meanwhile, has kept himself in shape by starring in the Europa League, scoring in the win away at Molde and setting up a goal for Folarin Balogun in the victory against Dundalk on Thursday.
The £72 million winger’s performances in Europe have made his domestic absence even tougher to take, with his eye for goal and ability to create something out of nothing matched by few others in Mikel Arteta’s mismatch of a squad.
But now the 25-year-old, who has more direct goal involvements – four goals and three assists – than any other player for the Gunners this season, is available again and has a real opportunity to show he can be the man to spark Arsenal’s crumbling season back into life.
“Big moments require big players and when that happens, you expect very big players to do something about it,” Arteta said, when asked whether Pepe could make the difference after his suspension.
“But we are not relying on just one individual. It is not something I like when we are having a difficult moment.”
When Pepe trudged off the pitch at Elland Road on November 22 after being shown a red card for his head butt on Ezgjan Alioski, there were many who believed it was the beginning of the end of his Arsenal career.
Despite flashes of quality and the strong end to the season he enjoyed during his debut campaign in England, Arteta had yet to be fully convinced by the former Lille star.
That had been made quite clear by the fact that prior to the game at Leeds, he had started just two of Arsenal’s matches in the Premier League since the start of 2020-21.
But with summer signing Willian struggling to impress since his free transfer from Chelsea, the calls for Pepe to return to the starting XI had become difficult to ignore ahead of the clash at in West Yorkshire.
So Arteta brought him back into his starting XI – only for the winger to get himself sent off and leave his side playing with 10-men against one of the top-flight’s most energetic and demanding sides.
To their credit, Arsenal managed to escape with a goalless draw, but that did not stop Pepe being hit by a barrage of criticism.
Arteta labelled the Ivorian’s actions as “unacceptable” while former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who was covering the game as a pundit for Sky Sports said: “I think he should say sorry to all his team-mates.
“Alioski deserved an Oscar, he played it so well, but it’s really silly from Pepe.
“You’ve not been playing a lot and then Arteta gives you a chance, so don’t come and cry when you don’t play the next game.”
But rather than being the beginning of the end for Pepe at Arsenal, that incident at Leeds could actually prove to be the one that sparks him into life in north London.
The way he has responded in the Europa League has been very impressive, albeit against limited opposition.
In the game immediately after Leeds, against Rapid Vienna, Pepe scored a wonderful goal and produced a Man-of-the-Match performance as Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 win.
“I am really pleased,” Arteta said after the game. “After the disappointment of something negative, you want to see a reaction and I could see from the first minute with his body language that he was ready to act.”
Pepe followed up that match-winning display with two more impressive showings against Molde and Dundalk, and now looks ready to hit the ground running when the Gunners host in-form Southampton on Wednesday.
Four successive home defeats in the Premier League have seen Arteta come under increasing pressure, so much so that technical director Edu was forced to come out and offer his under-fire manager a vote of confidence on Monday.
Arsenal’s senior players have been letting their manager down this season. The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Willian and Granit Xhaka have all underperformed.
Despite consistently poor displays, however, they have remained in the side – with Willian starting every Premier League game he has been available for, often at Pepe’s expense.
But with the Brazil international yet to score for his new club and having only contributed one assist since the win at Fulham on the opening weekend of the season, Pepe now has a real opportunity to show he can make the difference for Arteta.
“We all know what his level is, and all the time the question is how often he can get to that level and how he contributes to other aspects of the game,” said the Gunners’ boss.
“Every time he gets in those positions in the final third, he is a real threat and a very difficult player to control because he can go with his feet, he can come inside, he can shoot, he can create crosses and he can go in behind you as well. That is what we can expect from him.”
Arsenal have scored just one league goal in three games while Pepe has been banned, and that came from a centre-back.
Meanwhile, with the club-record signing in the side, they have scored 11 times in three Europa League matches.
Just a matter of weeks ago his long-term future in north London was being debated. Now, however, Pepe has the chance to be the player who could rescue Arsenal’s season, and potentially keep Arteta in a job too.
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