In the end, Arsenal made it through against Benfica. Despite two Dani Ceballos mistakes, Arsenal found enough in themselves to get the win over the line. Yet, there is still much room for improvement. One such area would be to bring Nicolas Pepe back into the Arsenal starting line-up.
Arteta Must Bring Nicolas Pepe Back
Nicolas Pepe Had Found Form
Nicolas Pepe may be one of the least fortunate men in the Arsenal squad. Whilst some players find their spot in the team come rain or shine with no relation to performance, Pepe has found himself getting the short end of the stick. Pepe will play an hour one week, then fifteen minutes the next. Many people say Pepe lacks consistency, but it’s more probable that Pepe lacks consistency of opportunity.
For a brief period, this seemed to have changed. Pepe was being deployed as a left-winger and returned strong performances and goals against Southampton and Wolves. In this spell, Pepe also looked Arsenal’s most threatening player in a 0-0 draw against Manchester United. His reward? Limited minutes and opportunity.
Such an issue could be overlooked if Arsenal looked more comfortable in his absence, but it would be wrong to say this.
Emile Smith Rowe Struggles Out Wide
Over both Europa League games against Benfica, Mikel Arteta opted to play Emile Smith-Rowe out wide with Martin Odegaard in a central role. Whilst Arsenal won, the problem lies in quite how hard they made it for themselves. Benfica played a high line, almost crying out for a run in behind. No one offered this.
Pepe can be defined by his directness, his willingness to take on his man. Smith Rowe offers nothing of the sort. In the festive period where Smith Rowe looked better, he was used centrally, relying on one-twos to progress play. Out wide, he has struggled to progress play. Passes have found their way backwards more often than not, and his general involvement in the game has nosedived.
If Arsenal had played Pepe, they would have had an option to get behind the high line. This is something that could trouble Arsenal in future league games. Pepe offers a unique skillset to Arsenal, and it would be remiss to ignore the fact that he can do things that no other Arsenal forward can.
Pepe May Gel Well With Martin Odegaard
When Nicolas Pepe found some form in 2019/20, he did so when Mesut Ozil was in the team. When Arsenal moved away from using a Number 10, Pepe found that his own involvement stalled. A player like Pepe needs the ball moved into him, Odegaard can do this.
Whilst he’s only played a handful of games, Odegaard has shown the ability to play passes in behind the defence that no one else in the team is doing. When Smith Rowe played centrally, he offered a more run-heavy approach. Odegaard looks as if he has the ability to help bring his teammates into the game a bit more, something which is a winger’s dream.
Given that Mikel Arteta has given some players umpteen chances to thrive at Arsenal, it’s not too much to ask that Nicolas Pepe gets the same treatment.
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