The emergence of Bukayo Saka on the right of Arsenal’s three-pronged attack has been a revelation for Gunners fans…but it hasn’t been quite such good news for one player in particular.
Already vying for game time in the Premier League with summer signing Willian, Nicolas Pepe now finds himself third in line for a spot on the right wing after a string of impressive displays from Saka.
Having typically taken up a berth on the left, Saka was moved to the opposite flank in order to accommodate Gabriel Martinelli – who impressed with his work on the wing – and, latterly, for Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang as the Gabonese was shifted wide to make room for Alex Lacazette through the middle.
While the results of those various permutations have borne fruit for Mikel Arteta, they have left the club’s £72million man out in the cold – literally so at West Brom when Willian was brought on for a late run-out instead of the Ivorian.
Having seemed to force his way back into contention with some eye-catching performances in the Europa League, Pepe is now back to square one – partly because of misfortune but partly because, well, he simply hasn’t been consistent enough.
Of course, you could rightly argue that even Willian looked better playing in a winning team and that, given the chance, Pepe could also contribute but, with Saka having seized the opportunity to make that spot his own, and the manager turning to Willian as his back-up, the future looks uncertain at best for Pepe.
This weekend’s FA Cup clash against Newcastle could, therefore, be something of a make-or-break for the rest of Pepe’s season and, indeed, for his Arsenal career. In order to remain in contention, to keep the pressure on the manager, he needs to produce. When called upon in the Europa League, against pretty poor opposition, he has made his mark but he needs to repeat that when it really matters.
Newcastle aren’t peak Barcelona by any stretch of the imagination but they are a darn sight better than Dundalk and the sort of calibre of opposition a man with Pepe’s talents should be tearing to pieces.
It’s by no means certain Pepe will start on Saturday given the manager’s preference for Willian from the right but, if he does, he has to be looking to add to his tally for the season.
To be fair, five goals and three assists is not a tally to be sniffed at by any means, in fact it’s second only to Lacazette in terms of goal involvements this season, but it’s time Pepe moved from a modest return to the sort of return that makes a difference. We don’t need a flat-track bully, we need a match-winner. We can’t accommodate a player who scores the fourth goal in a 6-0 rout, we need the player who scores the winner in tight games.
It’s clear a succession of managers, Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta, haven’t been 100 per cent convinced by the 24-year-old’s talents and it may be the case that the current incumbent never is, but if he is to recapture the sort of form that turned heads in Ligue 1, this weekend is his chance.