The 24-year-old looks to be finding his feet in North London
When Nicolas Pepe curled in two sublime free-kicks to turn the game on its head against Vitoria on Thursday night, it felt like a watershed moment.
With just 15 minutes remaining when the Ivorian replaced Alexandre Lacazette from the bench, Arsenal were trailing 2-1 and looked to be slipping to a shock home defeat to the Portuguese visitors.
His two goals rescued Unai Emery’s side and gave the Gunners a perhaps otherwise undeserved 3-2 victory to maintain the 100% start to the Europa League campaign.
But this is what top players can do – provide match-winning moments and save the team when called upon.Embed from Getty Images
Pepe has come under a lot of pressure from fans and pundits in the early stages of his Arsenal career – but a performance like this is proof of why we need to go easy on the 24-year-old.
We saw glimpses of Pepe’s class in his first start for the club against Liverpool at Anfield.
He looked dangerous on the counter attack. Van Dijk was skinned for the first time in 50 Premier League games and he made full-back Andrew Robertson look average with his pace, power and skill.
Had he slotted that one-on-one away after racing through following mesmerising deft touches in the first-half, what a difference it could’ve made to his confidence.Embed from Getty Images
That’s the difference in football, though, especially at this level. Fine margins.
And it’s been a case of fine margins for Pepe in his first 12 appearances for the club. The misses v Liverpool and Sheffield United, the penalty he should’ve been given vs Bournemouth – it’s been a case of almost.
But at least the signs are there – he’s far from hopeless. Quite the opposite in fact. He’s looked dangerous at times and he seems to be doing the right things.
For a so-called slow start, three goals and three assists from seven starts and five substitute appearances is by no means disastrous.
He’s contributed a goal or assist every 118 minutes – yes there’s room for improvement but it’s a platform.Embed from Getty Images
Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires all had slow starts to their careers at Arsenal.
Two of them now have statues outside the stadium and the other is considered one of the greatest players in the club’s history who played a pivotal role in our best ever season in 2003/04 alongside them.
It took until his ninth game for Henry to register a goal for Arsenal, Bergkamp took eight games and Pires had a well-documented supposed slow start to life in North London.
And that’s why patience is the key with Pepe. There’s no guarantee he will even go close to replicating that trio or become an all-time Arsenal great.
But we have to at least give him the chance.