CONFUSED OR TACTICS GONE WRONG
Not only was Nicolas Pepe dropped to the bench for Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Wolves; Unai Emery turned to two teenagers when needing substitutes in the second half. I am trying to get to grips with the curious Pepe ousting here.
It has not been the greatest start to the season for Arsenal club-record signing. Obviously struggling with the pressure that his £72 million price tag brings, as well as failing to acclimatize to English football from the off, the former Lille winger has lacked confidence, conviction and clarity in his play.
But then, suddenly, explosion. With his team 2-1 down to Vitoria SC, in desperate need of some inspiration, Unai Emery introduced Pepe, hoping for his star winger to produce magic. And Pepe did not disappoint.
With two freekicks, the Ivorian hauled Arsenal into a dramatic 3-2 lead, his curling left foot whipping two beautiful set-piece efforts into the corner of the goal. This was what Pepe was signed to be.
Pepe then started three days later, in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace. He did not quite repeat the same brilliance of his midweek cameo, but he was solid, had an assist, which is an improvement on what he has been over the course of much of the season. Things, slowly, were looking up.
So what did Emery do? Just as his star player is gaining confidence and hoping to fulfill wild expectations with his wilder ability, he drops him. In Saturday’s 1-1 draw to Wolves, Emery maddeningly switched to a 4-4-2 narrow diamond, using Mesut Ozil in behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Pepe was not to start. But even worse, with Arsenal chasing a goal in the second half, Emery turned to two 18-year-olds, not his £72 million starlet. Odd, to say the least.
Trying to make sense of this decision is extremely difficult. It is somewhat understandable that Emery believed a narrow diamond was the best way to stifle Wolves’ tricky back-three-based system, but that does not excuse leaving Pepe on the bench when he switched to a 4-3-3 later on. Moreover, Pepe has played in the 4-4-2 diamond before, so it is not as if Emery is unwilling to use him in this system.
Maybe Emery wanted to protect Pepe. There has been a growing toxicity around the Emirates and a poor performance would only have increased the number of doubters. But that does not really fly given that Emery has equally managed Pepe in a manner to give him as much playing time as possible to build his confidence.
Finally, maybe Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, the two players introduced ahead of Pepe, are just better, in Emery’s eyes. Maybe Emery believes that Pepe does not deserve to play. That may be true, but surely the switch would have been made during Pepe’s more underwhelming periods, not immediately after scoring two terrific freekicks.
And so, we are left with an incredibly confusing situation to decipher. There are few, if any, valid reasons why Emery dropped Pepe and then did not use Pepe from off the bench.
Perhaps the most obvious answer is that Emery does not know what he is doing. Given what else is happening at the club, that is not entirely unfathomable either.
Failure to win at Leicester this weekend could mean for Unai Emery, the only way is out!