Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Pepe
Unai Emery, his tactics, substitutions, and his football in general has come under major criticism following the series of unconvincing displays from the team which was compounded by the shambolic outing in Bramall Lane on Monday night. The Gunners had a golden opportunity to cement third place in the League against a newly-promoted side but the manager put up a side that wasn’t just good enough.
With the Premier League out of way till the weekend at least, there was the business of the Europa League and as you’d expect, Emery made wholesale changes with only Joe Willock retaining his place in the team. Emi Martinez continued his role as the Cup keeper, captain Hector Bellerin led the defense that had Rob Holding, Kieran Tierney and Skhodran Mustafi. Many Arsenal fans are in the strong opinion that at least three of the four defenders that featured yesterday are ready for Premier League football, but I guess the manager is working with the team physicians on when he’d get the go ahead to feature them in the elite competition.
In midfield, Lucas Torreira played alongside Willock in the double fulcrum and I expected a certain Mesut Ozil to play ahead of them but to my surprise, it was Emile Smith-Rowe. Not that I’m not tired about this whole Ozil – Emery debacle but I can’t fathom why the German schemer can’t even get a game in a minor competition like the Europa League. It’s even more bewildering when you consider the fact that Emery publicly stated that he would feature soon as he’s ‘training well’. In attack, our cup predator, Gabriel Martinelli, had to settle for a spot in the left flank, as the returning Alexandre Lacazette needed a game ahead of the Crystal Palace clash. Ainsley Maitland-Niles completed the attacking trio.
The Gunners were shaky from the start but it was surprising to see the visitors score the opening goal of the game after their right winger skinned Tierney and provided a cut back to Marcus Edwards, that had all the time in the world to pick his spot before slotting the ball under Martinez legs to put the away side ahead. Victoria Guimaraes came into the game bottom of the pile, so to see them get ahead the group’s top side was a little cause for concern. The Gunners pushed and probed for an equalizer and got it when Tierney swung in a beauty of a cross that was nodded home by Martinelli. Scoring five goals in your debut season as an 18-year-old clearly shows that you are a reliable deputy in attack and it makes me happy because the Carabao Cup and Europa League will give the lad the platform he needs to flourish, as he waits for a real run up in the Premier League.
Arsenal has always had this habit of capitulating on their own and the visitors grabbed a second after some sloppy play from Maitland-Niles in midfield that left the team exposed to the counter. The initial strike beat Martinez and clipped the post but Duarte was on hand to blast home the rebound, giving the Arsenal goalie no chance. As you’d expect from Emery losing a game to a lower opposition at half time, he made two changes after the break bringing on Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi for the ineffectual Willock and Maitland-Niles. Their introductions brought the wind on the Gunners sails and they kept barraging the Victoria Guimaraes defense in search of an equalizer.
With 15 minutes left on the clock, Emery took out Lacazette for the club’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe. The jury has been out for the young Ivorian following his 72m quid move from LOSC Lille Metropole and with only one goal to his name (gifted by the lovable Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), many fans remained hopeful that he would show the quality that made the Gunners spend all that mullah for his services. Five minutes into Pepe’s introduction, the Gunners had an indirect free kick from quite some distance leaving the Ivorian winger with two plausible options – cross it to the danger area or go for goal. He choose the latter and the net was bulging, sending the Emirates into raptures. His celebration was quite muted and he just wanted to go on with his business.
2-2 with minutes to spare, the Gunners needed someone to take the game by the scruff of its neck and our Guendouzi stepped up, making a Jack Wilshere-esque lung bursting run into the heart of the Victoria Guimaraes defense and as expected, he was scythed down by a defender at the edge of the box. Thoughts of the similar run in the Aston Villa game came to my head and we had Aubameyang to finish it off and win the tie for the Gunners but this time, Pepe made his intentions clear that he wanted to take the free kick and boy was that some finish! Swung with his magic wand of a left foot to the top corner winning the game for his side. Like the previous goal, his celebration was muted but his teammates were all over him, providing some encouragement to the lad, as his sheet quality won the game for his side.
What I can take from Pepe’s celebrations is that he was very relieved to see that he was delivering some output as there has been a lot of pressure on the lad as you’d expect for a club record signing. But we can look to the Crystal Palace game with some optimism knowing that we have Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe available for selection with the intent of causing real damage but last night was about our 72m man.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Pepe.
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