There were no goals or assists for Nicolas Pepe against Leeds on Monday night, but once again he showed his growing influence on this Arsenal team.
Signed for £72m in the summer, Nicolas Pepe has been carrying the weight of expectation on his shoulders ever since.
Despite reaching nine goal contributions by January 1st, in his first campaign in England, Pepe is frequently the target of criticism and mocking from rival fans. Thankfully, he’s now starting to show the kind of influence the Arsenal fans want from him.
Against Manchester United, Pepe’s impact was clear to see. He scored the opening goal, he hit the woodwork, he completed every pass, long ball and cross he attempted and created four chances.
The only thing lacking was the fitness to finish the 90 minutes. Even that was understandable considering how inconsistently his managers used him in the preceding months. His efforts in the opening hour were still more than enough to win the game.
Then, in the Leeds match on Monday, Pepe didn’t have a goal or assist to show for his performance. All the same, he was just as crucial to the win.
The winger had Arsenal’s only shot on target in a terrible first half for the team. He and Reiss Nelson were the sole players even vaguely likely to get the side on the attack.
After the break, Pepe’s influence was indisputable. No one completed more dribbles or created more chances than him in the second half, as Arsenal took hold of the match and had 13 shots to Leeds’ three.
The winger’s best moment was in the build-up to the goal. He picked the ball up under pressure in his own half and turned Douglas, who was trying to foul him.
Anthony Taylor played the advantage and Pepe’s run drew two more Leeds players to him. Lacazette found space as a result, and Pepe found the pass into the striker’s path.
The Frenchman tried to cut it back for Pepe, but a desperate diving Leeds leg just managed to divert it away from the number 19. The ball instead fell to Nelson to score.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 6, 2020
The open-play goal
There’s no doubt Pepe really needed a goal from open play to lift his confidence.
His penalty against Aston Villa was a gift. His excellent match-winning free-kicks against Vitoria only bought him limited favour, given the strength of the opposition and the fact they were in the Europa League group stage.
Don’t misunderstand, the winger had still put in plenty of good performances in the opening months of the season. He was one of few positives against Liverpool at Anfield. He only lacked the finish against Spurs, providing an assist that day.
His set-pieces in October directly won Arsenal points against Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, before he dropped out of the team at the start of the next month.
For a long time, Pepe was Arsenal’s top chance creator, though Mesut Özil has unsurprisingly stolen that title back since coming back into the team.
The problem was just that he didn’t have the confidence in front of goal. I mentioned the Spurs game, when he had seven shots but couldn’t score. Then there was the infamous miss against Sheffield United. He just didn’t have any conviction in his shooting.
He got his goal against West Ham, a winner in a Premier League game, and it really seems to be sparking him back into life.
Dribbling combined with end product
Pepe’s dribbling is a real asset to a team. It gives them someone to turn away from pressure and start an attack, particularly in a game like Monday’s. He has to combine it with a goal threat though.
Going back to the winner against Leeds, the only reason it happened is that Gaetano Berardi was scared of allowing Pepe a chance to shoot.
Berardi pushed up to close down the winger when he should have stayed with Lacazette. Then he dived in to prevent the cutback from reaching Pepe and gifted it to Nelson.
When defenders are scared you might shoot, they dive in on you. They give you the chance to go past them or draw a foul.
When they know you’re on the back of 15 games without a goal from open play, they can afford to play cautiously.
As a result, Pepe’s two goals in his last four starts aren’t just good for him. The threat he now poses opens up space and opportunity for his teammates to take advantage.
If he can maintain and build on his current form, Pepe’s influence will help Arsenal win a lot of matches. It’s just about finding that consistency now.