LONDON — Arsenal did not spend £72 million on Nicolas Pepe to make the difference in Europa League group stage matches against Dundalk. The 25-year-old cost almost as much as the other 21 players on the field combined. Only three others in the Gunners’ starting lineup commanded any sort of fee at all: goalkeeper Runar Runarsson, on debut, (£1.8m), Shkodran Mustafi (£35m), Mohamed Elneny (£5m) and Granit Xhaka (£34m).
Pepe will take comfort from scoring Arsenal’s third goal with less than a minute of the second half played, curling a fine right-foot shot into the top corner past 39-year-old Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers. But in truth, the game had already been won by that point as two goals at the end of the first half from Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock — 125 seconds apart — broke the visitors’ spirited resistance and finally translated the pre-match feeling of an inevitable home win to the scoreline.
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And during that 42-minute period prior to the opening goal, the only part of the match that could be considered a genuine contest, Pepe was outshone by the club’s academy graduates as Willock looked purposeful bursting forward from midfield, Reiss Nelson offered flashes of threat from out wide and Nketiah added to his growing collection of poacher’s goals when breaking the deadlock after Rogers dropped a Nelson corner. Pepe didn’t make the most of several promising opportunities, unbefitting of a winger with such a price tag playing against modest opposition who created a remarkable slice of history by becoming the first team not to commit a foul in a Europa League game since Opta began collecting such data in 2009.
Arsenal won comfortably and Pepe got his goal so final judgements should be reserved for future occasions, but given the Gunners’ first team are exhibiting a lack of creativity and clinical finishing, this still felt like an opportunity the Ivory Coast winger failed to fully embrace.
“It is nothing to do with his attitude. He is a player who takes risks. He is a very creative player and that is the most difficult thing in football, when they all know what you can do as well, how much they want to prevent space, the overloads that they generate to defend you as well,” Gunners boss Mikel Arteta said after the match. “So creative situations for them is complicated but sometimes it is the simple things: the deliveries, the amount of situations that he is able to create or attract and then make the right decision to keep evolving that phase of play, for example, the finishing inside the box and he has to be more consistent. We are working on that and hopefully he will be doing that much more efficiently.”
Nketiah’s ten Arsenal goals have come from an average distance of five yards. It was therefore tempting to suggest he was too far out when missing a glorious chance to open the scoring on 39 minutes when somehow stabbing a shot wide when the ball fell to him just inside the six-yard area following some penalty-box pinball. Nketiah validated that theory three minutes later when thrashing a loose ball home from underneath the crossbar after Rogers’ error triggered the beginning of the end for Dundalk.
Pepe inflicted the final blow, but his 61st-minute substitution for Willian felt like the metaphorical baton being passed back to the Brazilian after his absence against Rapid Vienna and Leicester City due to a calf problem. Willian had just under half an hour to blow the cobwebs away ahead of Sunday’s trip to Manchester United, where he will be pushing to start and continue his fine form following a summer move from Chelsea.
Error! Filename not specified.Nicolas Pepe scored a beautiful goal in Arsenal’s comfortable win over Dundalk, but more is expected of the club’s record signing. Matthew Lewis – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
Pepe arrived to much greater fanfare last summer, with a variety of scouts and recruitment experts expressing surprise at Arsenal’s willingness to pay Lille a club-record £72m for his services.
His goal here was the 10th of his Arsenal career, coming on his 52nd appearance. It is not a dreadful return on paper, but those strikes have come against Dundalk, Sheffield United (twice), Brighton, Newcastle, Manchester United, West Ham and Vitoria. His goal against United — which came on New Year’s Day as Arteta earned his first win as Arsenal boss — capped an excellent individual display, but regularly attaining that level of performance feels some way off at present.
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In fact, Willock in particular advanced his case for greater first-team involvement, not necessarily against United, but a run of matches in the Europa League would give him a deserved chance to build on this contribution. That would be considered progress for Willock, but Pepe is judged by different standards, and for his time in north London to be considered a success, he simply has to be affecting the bigger games with greater regularity.
“Knowing Nico and speaking to him, I don’t think it is something that worries him too much,” Arteta said. “It is about him hitting his best every single week. I think this is where he believes he can do better and we have to try to help him. I think he is so willing to do well and show everybody — first of all his teammates, myself and then the fans — that he is a player who can make the difference every week. Obviously he has not been first choice in a lot of the games at the moment but to be fair he has played quite a lot of moments, some better than others. It is about finding the consistency, not through the games but during the game as well to be more insistent and be able to do the right things in many, many occasions when he has to make the right decisions on the pitch.”
After exchanging customary fist bumps with Arteta and several backroom staff members, Pepe took up a seat in the stand alongside Alexandre Lacazette and in front of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, rested with Old Trafford in mind. That feels about as close as Pepe is going to get to those two for the time being.