How ‘free spirit’ Nicolas Pepe could be the making of Mikel Arteta at Arsenal

The £200million front four will not restore Arsenal to the top four. Not this season and perhaps not ever. They are the faces of a failed policy, of committing too much of the budget to one department of the team and losing a reputation for fiscal prudence amid misguided short-termism. They had, Josh Kroenke admitted, a Champions League wage bill and a Europa League budget. If they don’t win the FA Cup, they might not even have Europa League football.

Nicolas Pepe is set to be the last man standing of the costly quartet. In 13 months’ time, he may be the only survivor: Arsenal are worried Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will leave, can’t wait for Mesut Ozil to go and, as Alexandre Lacazette now looks Eddie Nketiah’s deputy, they might welcome his departure. With Arsenal’s budget being assailed on all sides, Pepe’s £72million fee means he is destined to remain the club-record buy for years.

Lacking similar funds, forced to find the answer within, using ideas and imagination to try and compensate for the deficiencies in a mismatched squad featuring too many erratic figures, Mikel Arteta’s reign could depend in part on how he fares with Pepe. It is why the encouragement the Ivorian’s display at Bramall Lane offered extended far beyond securing Arsenal a semi-final berth. A goal and an assist for Dani Ceballos’ winner helped but the broader conclusion was that he could be a force next season.

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“He has incredible potential,” said Arteta, who had admired Pepe from afar before taking charge. “I really like him from the past.” Pepe’s pace is one of his most obvious qualities but he made a slow start in London, scoring a solitary league goal under Unai Emery, the manager who signed him but really wanted Wilfried Zaha.

But rewind to the days when Arsenal rarely needed an immediate impact from their imports, Arsene Wenger used to say some needed six months to settle. Robert Pires did, and he became Footballer of the Year in his second season. Thierry Henry began by going eight games without a goal, and if such comparisons are automatically unfair, Arteta underlined the human element of a transfer.

“It is very important to understand the player and his feelings and how hard it has been for him to adapt to a new country and a language he can’t understand,” he said. He believes Pepe is emerging from his shell. “He is very willing, a nice boy, always smiling around everyone, a bit of a free spirit but that’s good because you need those characters in your team.”

The tactical element forms another part of the equation. Arteta spent some of lockdown going through clips with players, albeit from distance. He has managed to get Pepe in the half-space, the inside-right channel; perhaps a left-footer’s speed could be used to make more Mohamed Salah-esque runs in behind defences, but he can shoot from distance. An inverted winger can be an incisive one. His manager is demanding he doubles up as a defensive presence.

“I think he realises now what he needs to do when we don’t have the ball,” he said. “He is always unpredictable when he does have the ball. I am very excited about what he can bring. I am so pleased to see his defensive actions today, it is incredible, and then with the ball he gives us creativity, the flair big teams need.”

One of the many flaws in Arsenal’s thinking was that there was no system that suited each of their marquee attackers perfectly. Project Restart has been Project No Starts for Ozil, with no substitute appearances either. A back injury that may or not may not have been sustained holding a parasol in the Southampton sun accounted for his absence in Sheffield but, and while Pepe is a completely different player, he has been a beneficiary.

The attack takes on a different shape without a No 10. Arteta showed his own creativity. A manager influenced by Pep Guardiola, who in turn idolised Marcelo Bielsa, used a 3-3-3-1 shape that the Argentinian likes but which is altogether too bold for most others. His strategy of fielding two left-backs had mixed returns: Kieran Tierney was excellent as a wing-back, but Sead Kolasinac contrived to concede in calamitous, Arsenal-ish fashion by walloping a clearance into Rob Holding and thus into David McGoldrick’s path. Even as David Luiz made an uneventful comeback, it was a reminder of the number of problems that confront Arteta.

Yet the eventual winner, featuring a combination of Nketiah and Pepe showed progress in more ways than one. He might yet be the magnificent £72million man.

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